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Saturday, August 20, 2011

Three Novels on the 2011 Booker Longlist, Alison Pick, Julian Barnes, Patrick McGuiness (by Liviu Suciu)

Every year The Man Booker Longlist is one the most anticipated selection of books for me since I tend to find on it novels I would otherwise scarcely hear about. Of the past two longlists, I have reviewed here some nine books encompassing a lot of range in style and content with big time favorites like my 2009 all around top novels The Children's Book by AS Byatt and Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel as well as another top 25 novel of that year, Sarah Hall's How to Paint a Dead Man or last year's favorites Room by Emma Donoghue, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell and Trespass by Rose Tremain.

This year's list has also a bunch of interesting books and I will present here a discussion of three of them, two superb novels and one that turned out to be a disaster from my perspective as witness and participant in the events the book purports to describe; sadly the author is utterly clueless about them, writing instead about an imaginary land in an imaginary time - and that would have been fine as sff but not as what is advertised.

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When Czechoslovakia relinquishes the Sudetenland to Hitler, the powerful influence of Nazi propaganda sweeps through towns and villages like a sinister vanguard of the Reich's advancing army. A fiercely patriotic secular Jew, Pavel Bauer is helpless to prevent his world from unraveling as first his government, then his business partners, then his neighbors turn their back on his affluent, once-beloved family. Only the Bauers' adoring governess, Marta, sticks by Pavel, his wife, Anneliese, and their little son, Pepik, bound by her deep affection for her employers and friends. But when Marta learns of their impending betrayal at the hands of her lover, Ernst, Pavel's best friend, she is paralyzed by her own fear of discovery—even as the endangered family for whom she cares so deeply struggles with the most difficult decision of their lives.

Interwoven with a present-day narrative that gradually reveals the fate of the Bauer family during and after the war, Far to Go is a riveting family epic, love story, and psychological drama.


Far to Go is a novel that is very well written and has all that I expected from it - lyrical prose and emotional content grounded in excellent research punctuated with quotes from the lives of many of the people involved in the tragedy of Europe in the late 1930's and a short note regarding their ultimate fate.

A story of Jewish people and gentiles, of relationships straining or blossoming under the extreme stress of the period, of a time of madness at which we sometimes look back and wonder "how could it happen?", though of course always the unstated "can it happen again?" lurks in the back of the mind.

The storyline is well described in the blurb, though it has its share of unexpected twists and turns, but the novel stands out for its style first and foremost - the voice of the present day narrator and the third person tense and dramatic events of the late 1930's.

The book flowed so well that I could put it down when started and I found it well deserving of its Booker long-listing; if there was a niggle that stopped me from truly being blown away by Far to Go, it was its similarity in theme and even somewhat in structure with 2009's The Glass Room by Simon Mawer - another Booker long-listed and later shortlisted novel - though Far to Go is very tightly written while The Glass Room scattered a lot in its last third taking away somewhat from its power.

Of course the novels differ a lot too - style, characters and their destiny etc, but the atmosphere, period, place, etc are the same and since both are pitch perfect there as well as being superbly researched they bring the same feeling to the reader to a large extent.

I will close with a quote from Far to Go (A+/A++), quote that is part of the "witness testimony" that starts each of the five parts of the novel and adds so much to its power:

"19 January 1939

Dear Pavel and Anneliese, I am sorry to have been out of contact for so long. All is well. Business continues apace. I trust you enjoy your books as usual. The one before The Castle is excellent. Please give my love to Alžběta if you see her. And to the little girls.

Best regards, Max

(FILE UNDER: Stein, Max. Died Auschwitz, 1943)"

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Tony Webster and his clique first met Adrian Finn at school. Sex-hungry and book-hungry, they would navigate the girl-less sixth form together, trading in affectations, in-jokes, rumour and wit. Maybe Adrian was a little more serious than the others, certainly more intelligent, but they all swore to stay friends for life.

Now Tony is in middle age. He’s had a career and a single marriage, a calm divorce. He’s certainly never tried to hurt anybody. Memory, though, is imperfect. It can always throw up surprises, as a lawyer’s letter is about to prove

The Sense of an Ending is a gem of a novel; short at 150 odd pages but condensed and one that needs at least one reread considering the last two pages - or after 50 pages when you think you get a sense of what the book is about and where it goes, you can jump at the end, read those last two pages and then get back and continue reading.

The blurb gives you an idea what the book is about but does not convey its richness as well its twisted and very compelling narrative.

All about Tony Webster - the average middle class Englishman in a way - his first girlfriend Veronica and his genius level school friend Adrian Finn whose destiny catches up unexpectedly with Tony some 40 years late but still in a very intriguing and poignant way.

And of course the novel is about much more - the human condition if you want a short description - but for me the narrative voice and the "unexpectedness" of what truly has happened made 'The Sense of an Ending" (A++) a big favorite and a top 25 novel of the year.

To intrigue you, here is a crucial part of the novel, though of course neither Tony nor us have an idea what it means until those end pages. From Adrian Finn's diary:

5.4 The question of accumulation. If life is a wager, what form does the bet take? At the racetrack, an accumulator is a bet which rolls on profits from the success of one horse to engross the stake on the next one.

5.5 So a) To what extent might human relationships be expressed in a mathematical or logical formula? And b) If so, what signs might be placed between the integers? Plus and minus, self-evidently; sometimes multiplication, and yes, division. But these signs are limited. Thus an entirely failed relationship might be expressed in terms of both loss/minus and division/reduction, showing a total of zero; whereas an entirely successful one can be represented by both addition and multiplication. But what of most relationships? Do they not require to be expressed in notations which are logically improbable and mathematically insoluble?

5.6 Thus how might you express an accumulation containing the integers b, a1, a2, s, v?

b=s - v */+ a1
a2 + v + a1*s = b

5.7 Or is that the wrong way to put the question and express the accumulation? Is the application of logic to the human condition in and of itself self-defeating? What becomes of a chain of argument when the links are made of different metals, each with a separate frangibility?

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The socialist state is in crisis, the shops are empty and old Bucharest vanishes daily under the onslaught of Ceaucescu's demolition gangs. Paranoia is pervasive and secret service men lurk in the shadows. In The Last 100 Days, Patrick McGuinness creates an absorbing sense of time and place as the city struggles to survive this intense moment in history. He evokes a world of extremity and ravaged beauty from the viewpoint of an outsider uncomfortably, and often dangerously, close to the eye of the storm as the regime of 1980s Romania crumbles to a bloody end.

The Last 100 Days is the kind of novel I always dread it will turn this way but have to read since it's one of the few written by western authors about Romania. I have no idea how the author did his research but the country and period he described is just wrong - maybe he researched Stalin's Russia of the 30's since the 1989 Romania he describes here reads that way and it was not like that - as I lived through those times as a college student and they are still seared in my memory even after 22 years, I found the travesty of this novel funny in the North Korean movie way on occasion - namely so bad to be funny in an absurd way.

Before getting the book I checked the sample - excited, the period that most likely was the most important in my life as from it sprung all the possibilities of the future - novel, longlisted for the Booker - and the writing style - a first person narration - was compelling enough but the factual mistakes started accruing at an alarmingly fast rate - the description of the Romanian car Dacia (wrong), the Bucharest blackouts, the food lines (they were much more prosaic - and again both not so bad and worse depending on occasion - than the author described and while here I could understand a little the exaggeration as literary license, it still jarred badly since it presaged the ridiculousness of what followed).

Then the university professors as janitors - so ridiculous, that may have happened in the 50's but in the 80's things were different - I would say subtler though they were sometimes cruder too.

Wrong naming all over the place that is again so sloppy (Capsia instead of Capsa or at worst Capsha if you want to transliterate the sh, Capsia just sounds ridiculous, Cilea I am not sure what it stands for but it is no Romanian name - maybe Clea was intended which kind of fits the heroine as one of those ridiculous pretend names affected by people like her, though even that sounds a little wrong - or maybe Cleo from Cleopatra, another sort of unusual fancier name but still around...).

And I could continue on page after page how the author got everything wrong factually and in spirit; the oppression was as mentioned much subtler and on occasion much cruder than the Stalinist menace, the party leaders and the secret policemen gave no fig about anything except their power and seats, communism meant obedience to the First Family and nothing else, Marxism, Leninism and the like were given at best lip-treatment though they generally were marginalized in favor of Ceausescu's Thought which was the only essential ideology combining National Greatness with slogans about Power to the People, the Soviet Union was regarded as an enemy pretty officially and all traces of Stalin had been eradicated long ago...

In late 1989 everyone expected the regime to collapse (there was a movie adaption of a classic 19th century work November the Last Ball - movie banned pretty fast for its allusion to the November Party Congress which turned out to be the last ball so to speak, that encapsulated the atmosphere) though of course nobody knew how it will happen since like with the avalanche, it still takes the little stone to start it...

The book simply does not get it and it's a pity the author did not choose something he understood better since literary speaking it is reasonably compelling to the end but it is about an imaginary country not the real 1989 Romania as advertised; sadly...

Overall "The Last Hundred Days" (F) should go under the heading alternate/imaginary history not historical fiction.

3 comments:

Michael said...

Without meaning to be a dick, why are these books being reviewed on a _fantasy_ book blog? I grant the benefit of the doubt that they're worth reading, but I don't see anything in their descriptions or the reviews to hint that they're the least bit applicable to the fantasy category of fiction.

I love the blog. I look forward to the reviews, and it's kept me informed of new releases far better than just trips to the bookstore or even browsing Amazon. I just don't understand why space/bandwidth is being used on non-genre books.

Liviu said...

There are several reasons though to be honest "space/bandwidth is being used on non-genre books" is a nonissue in the sense that FBC is not a rolling line of reviews that need space and bandwith - I wish we had that problem but time and energy are limited and I do not like to spend it on books I do not care about; for that I have Goodreads and my ongoing reading log of 2011 novels here:

http://fantasybookcritic.blogspot.com/2011/02/2011zsffrelatedreadsliviu-19.html

And reading and talking only about genre is very self limiting; also on another note historical fiction is very associational to fantasy especially - world building, big events, etc... and those are the main non-sff we review with the occasional outstanding contemporary fiction.

Meera said...

We live life with the assumption that age and time erode our memories of the past - that pain mitigates, and joy too looses it's ecstasy. If it sounds like a gross generalization, at least this is what I, as a 26 year old, had so long believed. In this poignant and tragic account of a 60 year old looking back at his life - indeed, all the way back to his school days - Julian Barnes (or rather Tony Webster) argues otherwise.

Reconciled to a lonely life, Tony Webster is past the stage of responsibility; way past. As he waits for the inevitable end to his days - no, it's not an illness, but presumably a state of mind - a letter from a lawyer stirs memories of a long forgotten past; memories even he had thought his mind to be incapable of conjuring. As the events unfold, he is forced to reevaluate his old relationships, reconsider the consequences of his actions, and indeed, re-imagine his past.

The title is apt to the point of being 'philosophically self-evident', for this is a book about a past that is never stagnant, a remorse that is incurable, and a grief that is inconsolable.

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