Tuesday, 22 January 2013

A26 | Roadkill | Pascal Garnier

Pascal Garnier’s The A26... this is literary fiction with a hapless, desperate serial killer.

At first I didn’t think it really came off. We’re introduced to Yolande and Bernard, a peculiar brother and sister who live together in a small town outside Paris. Yolande hasn’t left the house in years – not since the end of the second world war. Her brother has just discovered he is dying, which spurs him, oddly, into a killing spree.

At first Garnier seems intent on playing this for laughs as if the victims are utterly meaningless and that jars a bit.

But as the book went on it began to really grip me. The truth that is revealed is that for these Frenchmen and women the war has never really ended, and they are the poorer for it.

Pow! First impressions of a controversial Chinese literary POWerhouse

Thinking about it, 2013 has to be the ideal time to focus on the big wide world. The last twelve months have, after all, been so bloody British: Jubilee, Olympics, about a dozen pageants, Dickens, Shakespeare, even Scottish independence. There were entire weeks when you wondered if the rest of the globe had shut down completely.

So it’s a relief to pick up a book and travel without leaving your armchair – and a good novel is better than the average airport departure lounge or hotel swimming pool. A trip to China? I was sceptical of reading my first Mo Yan, what with his comments about Chinese state censorship which led to Salman Rushdie calling him a “patsy”. Ouch. But Pow! is a pleasant surprise. A strange, dirty, picaresque novel that struck me as entirely political and hugely critical of Chinese society.

I’m no Mo Yan expert (who is?). But it’s worth recalling that much of what we now consider our own great art was written under British state censorship – Shakespeare included – both moral and political. This isn’t to excuse China’s one party state, but surely each individual artist must address the realities of his time, and work within them, if he is to be heard at all.

And Pow! doesn’t read like an apology for anyone. Told in a complex fashion in two parallel narratives by Luo Xiatong, aged ten and twenty, it describes a corrupt, rural village which to some extent could be anywhere, east or west, in the past three centuries. It’s shocking that this is actually a description of China as recently as the 1990s: a time when its peasant communist society was being swept aside by the crudest most amoral brand of capitalism. The village makes its money from selling meat, any meat – beef, pork, camel, dog, you name it – which the butchers pump with water and formaldehyde to boost profit.

I found it didn’t matter that the book’s construction was a bit strange and rambling. I was travelling an alien landscape and I’d take whatever was coming. What I got was part social commentary, part satire... and a lot of stuff about meat and sex. Yes, the world’s new superpower is eating a lot of pork. But is Mo Yan worth his Nobel? Is anyone?

An Elk is for life, not just for Christmas... Doppler

The cover of Doppler by Erlend Loe comes with a neat little tagline: “An elk is for life... not just for Christmas.”

John Lewis, eat your heart out. But clearly we are in Norway, where elk roam free. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Scandinavia and seen one but a few years ago I drove past several while in Sweden and marvelled at their big dopy faces, loping walk, and vast antlers. If the elk was a Coen Brothers movie it would be The Big Lebowski.

Doppler is middle aged, his father has just died, and he’s fallen off his bike. So he leaves his comfortable Oslo home, takes a tent and heads off to live in the woods, “adopts” an elk calf and calls him Bongo.
He stays put for over a year, carves a totem pole and becomes the focal point of an ad hoc all-male, tree-hugging cult. “The forest is gentle and friendly,” he says at one point, like a Nordic Obi Wan. “It’s the sea which is fickle. And the mountains. But the forest is predictable and less confusing than almost every other place.”

The whole thing is funny and a touch dark. Norwegians seem to have an endearing offbeat humour these days – the tone isn’t unlike Lillyhammer, the Steven Van Zandt comedy BBC4 ran recently – perhaps due to being fabulously rich thanks to all their oil. (Notably, this book’s satire dates from 2004, before the credit crunch, austerity and the squeezed middle.)

It’s charming. And it made me think: Doppler’s decision to live in a forest really isn’t so crazy. In fact, it is kind of extraordinary that more men don’t follow his lead. That the woods aren’t stuffed full of middle-aged IT workers, accountants and company directors who, like him, have grown fed up of the routine drudge, their wives’ moods, and the sound of the Teletubbies on TV. Men who only really want their own company. And to urinate in the open air.

Another short novel that caught my eye for entirely different reasons was The Black Lake by Hella S. Haase. A Dutch writer I’ve been meaning to introduce myself to for a while, she writes about her country’s colonial history. She died in 2011 and this novel actually dates back to 1948, but the translation is as fresh and as current as any Booker nominee.

Haase’s young narrator grows up in Java in the 1920s and 30s, his distant plantation owning parents a mystery, his only friend Oeroeg, the native son of the estate’s foreman. As the boys get older they become aware of the racial and cultural divisions which eventually will tear their world apart. It’s barely a hundred pages but beautifully judged, and a genuinely intriguing insight into the end of a European empire.

All of which has nothing whatsoever to do with tennis, the subject of the first essay in Both Flesh And Not by David Foster Wallace. You’ve heard of him: friend of Jonathan Franzen; highly regarded in America’s literary circles; dead at 46, having committed suicide following a long battle with depression.

These essays span two decades, and range from some thoughts about Terminator 2 to a list of under rated American novels. (Including Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy, of which all he says is “Don’t even ask”.)

The most enjoyable is about watching Roger Federer play tennis and dates from 2006, when the Swiss was at the height of his domination. It manages to be detailed, strangely moving, and highly readable.
But no elks.

Doppler by Erlend Loe (Head of Zeus, £7.99)