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issue 51: January - February 2006

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The People’s Act of Love by James Meek: Canongate Books, Ltd, UK, 2005

The People's Act of Love is James Meek’s third novel, following McFarlane Boils The Sea (1989) and Drivetime (1995). It is perhaps understandable, given the tumultuous events that provide the backdrop to this latest novel, that it has often been described as epic. Set in the cinematic snowdrifts of Siberia, at the tail end of both the First World War and the Russian Revolution, and underpinned with such dark and passionate themes as love, terrorism, castration and cannibalism, it would seem entirely justified to place The People’s Act of Love in that category of irrational or profound Russian novels that weigh just as heavy on the hands as on the heart. Yet, James Meek has fashioned a novel so spectacularly resolute in aim and style that the description ‘epic’ simply fails to capture its success; in fact, that epithet misrepresents the story, burdening the first few chapters limp with an expectation it neither wants nor cares for.

This is storytelling that owes as much to the terse, taut language of American hard-boiled thrillers as it does to the psychological drama, all of it managed with an eye on fixing the imagination with scenes potent with mystery and romance. Chapter Two opens with ‘In the middle of October nine years later, in that part of Siberia lying between Omsk and Krasnoyarsk, a tall slender man wearing two coats and two pairs of trousers came walking from the north towards the railway’. What follows only adds to the enigma of the ‘man’ called Samarin: coming across a soldier’s corpse, he cuts off one of the hands and buries it in a nearby forest. The scene is redolent of an atmospheric moment often seen in graphic novels or Westerns - the stranger walking out of the cruel wilderness into a small town torn with secrets and corruption. This combination of mystery and romance, punctuated with sudden and often explicit acts of violence, works to elevate the novel to a handsome and distinguished class of its own.

The town of Yazyk has been taken over by a company of Czechoslovakian soldiers adrift in the aftermath of the civil war, where they rule over a bitter, exhausted land. Also living in the town are a young widow, Anna Petrovna, and a strange Christian sect, led by Balashov the grocer, whose members believe themselves to be angels.

From the first page the characters are magnetic, revelational; the plot quietly slices through the text like a knife, while Meek’s style contrasts an occasional taste for sentences that twist and turn their meaning, at times provocative, at others sensuous and opaque, with phrases that kick and scratch at the senses. This contrast is apparent in the difference between Anna’s sexual experiences at the start and at the end of the novel. The first is with her husband: ‘the first man’s penis she had seen budded at the end like a tightly coiled rose no more than an hour away from blooming’. The tone here is shy and tender, almost eager for euphemism, whereas a later encounter has her bluntly slipping ‘the fingers into her slit’.

This emphasis on governing the interpretation of scenes and actions surfaces repeatedly as a motif. Midway through the novel, Samarin is put on trial and made to give an account of himself from his escape from an Arctic prison camp to his subsequent arrival in Yazyk. He says of the prison camp that ‘violence was the only language nobody could understand’ and depicts his experience as a sequence of distorted, inhuman acts of which he was a mere victim. However, when Samarin later embellishes his account by describing the camp as a place where ‘the old get eaten by the weak, then the weak get eaten by the strong, and then the strong get eaten by the clever’, he does so with a savage awareness that this dog-eat-dog maxim will more than likely be recognised and accepted by those judging him. His reference to violence as a language is both deceptively profound and deliberately misleading: he uses it as a device to persuade the jury of his innocence knowing that, given their circumstances, they probably understand violence and its bloody consequences only too well.

Samarin’s account, engrossing and terrifying, underlines truth as one of the major themes running throughout the book. Often the characters are obsessed with what the truth may or should be: Lieutenant Mutz in his determination to uncover Samarin’s past; Captain Matula in his desire to restrict the truth and maintain his control over the town; and Anna in coming to terms with the loss of her husband. Again at the end of the book, with the arrival of the Reds on the outskirts of Yazyk, the preoccupation with establishing rule by definition is reflected in the rumours of a propaganda film showing the massacre of workers at Staraya Krepost, an act perpetrated by the Czech unit stationed in Yazyk.

This focus on truth-states - the necessity and requirement of defining truths when reality is composed of much more immediate and life-threatening concerns - informs Samarin’s explanation that ‘What looks like an act of evil to a single person is the people’s act of love to its future self’. Our understanding of truth is always contingent on our perception of circumstances and how they relate to our needs and desires. Every character is involved in lies, half-lies and self-deceptions; all have their own motives and intentions, and their own tragedies awaiting them.

This is a novel that improves with time, with themes well worth reflecting on, especially in its relevance to our modern concerns of terrorism and idealism. Yet The People’s Act of Love is more than just topical. Its narrative is as entertaining as it is serious, as disturbing as it is delightful, and as vicious as it is true.

But let’s not call it an epic. Contrary to expectation, the book is surprisingly easy to heft. David Ramos Fernandes

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The Blind Rider by Juan Goytisolo: Serpent’s Tail, 2005. Translated by Peter Bush

Among many accolades, Carlos Fuentes calls Juan Goytisolo "Spain's greatest living novelist"—just but curious praise for a writer who has not lived in Spain for 50 years and continues to be its most scabrous critic. Born Barcelona in 1931, Goytisolo’s early novels, including Marks of Identity, were banned by the Franco regime. Driven into exile, Goytisolo lived in Paris from 1956 to 1996, when his wife, the writer Monique Lange, died. Since then he has lived in Marrakesh where he continues to be actively engaged in political and humanitarian projects and write trenchant essays and articles supporting these causes. The Blind Rider marks his10th novel, which he claims will be his last.

Goytisolo has always brought autobiographical elements into his fiction, and The Blind Rider clearly belongs to the genre "fictional memoir," where personal reminiscences of past and present events play a large part. The heart of these memories is expressed through the unnamed narrator, a widower, as he struggles with the anguishing grief that he feels over his loss.

The novel is structured loosely into five parts; the opening pages are an unrelenting, harshly unsentimental and stark collection of scenes and vignettes of a septuagenarian's life as he looks back, where images of death, both past and impending, prevail. With the loss of his wife everything crumbles; he loses his bearings. In despair, he realizes that "Time was a blind rider nobody could unsaddle," and that "His yesterdays were a series of eclipsed scenarios." These ironic themes reverberate throughout the novel.

Dream imagery juxtaposed with real settings figure much throughout Part II—of his past with his wife, of the "now" in Morocco and his adopted Moroccan family, and of the distant past with his parents and siblings. A revelation of years earlier underscores his observation, in a reference to his reading of Tolstoy, that "Literature allowed one to live by proxy. Tolstoy's characters embodied his dreams of a more intense life. It was then he discovered freedom existed only in books."

The narrator, in a brief two paragraphs at the beginning of Part III, bridges his past readings of War and Peace and The Kreutzer Sonata with two trips to Russia, one with his wife to the Yasnaya Polyana museum, and the last in the 1990's, alone, reading Hadji Murad. "To travel to Chechnya with this book was the most heartening and disturbing experience on the journey to cover the nth war of conquest."

He then centers on Marrakesh and the nearby mountains, which Goytisolo describes with a passionate lyrical intensity, setting up their inexorable connection as a passageway to oblivion: "The mountains were his horizon, his wall: the boundary of a remote, tantalizing world, with a magnetic pull that responded to his confused desire to escape." From here to the end of Part III we cross into the realm of hallucinatory, hashish-inspired dreams and nightmares, where Time has no limits: "From Stone Age to Cybernetic Spring, myriads of people had advanced like a huge, slow tide on the cliff's precipice . . . nearby ranks lost their footing and vanished down a voracious hole . . .wars, epidemics, famines, decimated their lines. . . ." The last long paragraph closing the section—a kaleidoscope of memories triggered by his dead wife's abandoned kaftans hanging in the closet—concludes with this pulsing echo: "He suddenly understood what life was: a hole or voracious abyss down which memory plunged." He has never abandoned the tragic awareness that "his yesterdays were a series of eclipsed scenarios."

In Part IV, choosing through deliberate irony the voice of the Creator whose existence he has always denied, he points out to himself the egotism, vanity and pretension that governed his life, leading him to believe he could escape oblivion. This monologue of God expounds on the theme of man's mortality in an absurd world, where no matter what constructs he sets forth—the invention of God by man, for example—nothing changed in the way men acted toward one another. The massacres, wars, and inhumanity of mankind will always continue to exist. "History is the kingdom of the lie." Every word that was put down in writing—the invention of God's texts—is false, based on a fabrication of lies. After a humorous scatological creation story that once more mocks man's blind obeisance to false myths, God eases up in his harangue, and points to a way beyond the crass materialistic world, to an abstract vision of beauty on the other side. He encourages the old man to pass through the "telon de boca," the theater's safety curtain, where he implies he will find beauty. This is not explained, and may be just an unconvincing mirage.

Telon de boca is the title of the Spanish edition, and Goytisolo gives it much metaphorical weight. In Part V, the brief conclusion of the novel, the narrator takes a collective taxi into the desert, transfers to another, and is left off in complete solitude at the edge of the cordillera, standing in a landscape, "the absolute kingdom of the inorganic." Then, he awakens from the dream, home on his cold and silent terrace. "The appointment would be for another day: when the safety curtain was raised and he confronted the vertiginous void. He was, was still among the spectators in the stalls."

Goytisolo leaves us standing where we all are: in the theater audience on the other side of the "telon de boca," where it will eventually rise. Perhaps, in rereading from time to time this slim volume—a magnificent tour de force—its lyrical poetic beauty and philosophical depth can be plumbed further. Like the song poems of Leonard Cohen or the brilliant writing of Milan Kundera in this respect, the reader must never forget the humor as well. Don Long

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Borrowed Light by Joolz Denby: Serpent’s Tail. 2006 (February)

In my review of Joolz Denby’s last novel Billie Morgan, shortlisted for the 2005 Orange Prize, I wrote that it was the best book of 2004. It is probably far too early to think of saying that this follow-up is one of the best books of 2006. Or is it?

Polwenna, a town with a surf beach in Cornwall, was not at first Astra Sharp’s favourite place; she preferred Yorkshire and Bradford, her birthplace. A little bit of rebellion helped—dressing as a Goth and so on—but as she grew up she began to love the place her hippie parents had moved to. Even so, with university and the first chance to escape the nest, it was Bradford that beckoned and the book starts with her in that city, happy, in control, the whole of her life seemingly laid out in front of her. "Then mum was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and the world turned pear-shaped."

Her siblings aren’t up to helping out much. Lance (Lancelot) is a quiet biker and his twin sister Gwen (Guinevere – a slight nod to Viz’s Modern Parents?) is turning into a radical Christian and blames her mother’s illness on her liberal hippie sins. And Git (Gita) is simply too young. So Astra, still too young to fully see what she is letting herself in for, gives up Bradford and returns to Polwenna to look after her family. Following on her tail is friend Connie who buys and does up a beach café where Astra works alongside the wonderful Cookie. Life, though not quite how she envisioned it, slips into some kind of normalcy. Then the start of the new season brings Luke, a rich holiday maker whose annual visits have reduced Astra to a lovesick idiot; it also brings Angel, Connie’s younger sister.

Angel is so beautiful she seems to suck the light out of wherever she is. Her broad Bradford accent doesn’t seem to deter men from falling over themselves, although Angel seems oblivious. In fact, nothing seems to faze Angel. It is first Cookie, then slowly Astra, who begins to see Angel as a real problem, as something not right. But Connie loves her sister to death and won’t hear a bad word against her. The summer is going to be a long and strange one; the weather is bad and there are more 'crows' and poisonous weaver fish than before. There is a sense of impending doom, as though something is coming to punish the town for some past crime.

Then comes the fateful night when the growing human and natural storm breaks, when everything seems to go wrong, when lives change and various futures are possibly glimpsed . . . and that is just the middle of the book.

Denby’s conversational style, with its backtrackings and suddenly remembered details —you can almost hear her hesitations, her ums and ars—and various offshoots into other directions, works its magic. Rather than turning the pages of a book, I felt like I was in a bar with a beer listening to this story unfold. Inside this ‘conversation’ there is some sharp dialogue—in a Bradford or Cornish accent—and with the simple, but effective, way the sights, sounds and smells are described, Denby coveys a total sense of place.

Then there are the protagonists. Astra, as narrator, could paint herself as a goody-goody saint, giving up everything to help out and save the day and the family. But no, she comes across as genuine with her own problems and hidden infatuations. Astra is, in short, wonderful, but as her summer from hell is unveiled, one can sense echoes or glimpse parallel lives of many of the characters reflected in her and vice versa. Elements such as shared experiences or mistakes seem to reoccur but often with an added twist. Unrequited love, love children, infatuation, mother-daughter and sibling relationships, etc. —all seem to come in twos. To clearly explain would give too much away, but we can see a little of it in Gwen’s misguided, spitting-pulpit ‘Christian’ attitude toward her mother’s illness as it is mirrored by Astra’s totally natural human attitude, which one could see as correct Christian values though that concept would be meaningless to Astra.

In a book like this with its tale of human relationships, weaknesses, shared mistakes and foibles, the other characters have to work, have to come alive, and Denby has pulled this off brilliantly in all but one character. I won’t say who that is as this might just be me missing a crucial point and a re-reading may put me right. For the moment I am happy because if this book had been faultless, I would now be crawling over broken glass to Ms Denby’s place in Bradford. MGS

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Cold Skin by Albert Sánchez Piñol: Farrar Straus Giroux, US, 2005, translated by Cheryl Leah Morgan; Canongate Books Ltd, UK, March 2006

Already translated into fifteen languages, Cold Skin (originally titled La pell freda) won the Ojo Critico Narrativa prize on its original publication in Catalan in 2002, an amazing feat for anthropologist Albert Sánchez Piñol, born in Barcelona in 1965, who debuted with this darkly beautiful novel. Consider a discrete synopsis:

A young, nameless narrator arrives by ship sometime after World War I at a remote island somewhere in the south Atlantic near the Antarctic Circle. It is there—far away from the normal shipping lanes, apparently more than six hundred leagues from the nearest large landmass—that he is to remain alone for a year. He will take on the unlikely job at this desolate outpost as the weather official for a company that has an incomprehensible need for such a person.

When the narrator arrives on the L-shaped, mile-long island, however, there is no sign of the previous weather official whom he is scheduled to replace, and the weather official’s cottage—which is surrounded by an unusual forest, situated at the tiny island’s center—is a deserted scene of chaos and neglect. It seems as though the incumbent weather official has long ago abandoned his post.

Meanwhile, at the northern end of the bleak island there is a strangely fortified lighthouse; it is here that the narrator briefly meets Gruner, the coldly taciturn maritime signal technician who apparently lives there and maintains the place. Rebuffed by the inhospitable and gloomy Gruner, and surrounded by what he perceives as malignantly unnatural scenery, the narrator retreats to what he thinks is the relative safety of his central section of the island where he begins the work of settling himself into the derelict cottage.

As the initial hours of daylight on the first day pass, however, he begins to worry about his new isolation. Apparently having escaped a mysterious past of devastating and disreputable failures at home somewhere in Europe, he now faces an uncertain future of self-imposed exile on a strange island where he already frets that he will become, as the expatriate narrator himself says, a "recluse in my memory" who should "never underestimate the power of solitary thoughts."

Then night begins to fall. And during the darkest hours, he is horrified to discover that he and Gruner are not alone on the island. Extraordinary creatures—the humanoid Sitauca—fill the nighttime hours with the sounds of indescribable melodies, strange howling, lethargic moaning, and unearthly screams. Later—intensifying the narrator’s terror—the island’s indigenous creatures close in upon him, advancing from the island’s shorelines, and begin a series of increasingly intense late night attacks upon the cottage.

After repeatedly repelling the Sitauca with gunshots, bonfires, and other remarkable strategies—and in the interim managing to capture an apparently docile, female member of the extraordinary Sitauca—the narrator seeks refuge and alliance at the lighthouse. However, when he learns of Gruner’s surprising, prior familiarity and intimacy with the female Sitauca, the narrator faces unusual challenges as he seeks to forge an uneasy partnership for survival with the unpleasant lighthouse keeper. And quite soon he realizes that Gruner will, in fact, be even more dangerous and savage than the Sitauca.

To include more details would be inexcusable because I don't wish to compromise prospective readers’ pleasures as they discover what life is actually like for the troubled narrator on his fascinating and repellent outpost in the south Atlantic.

Cold Skin, enriched by a gripping plot, complex characterizations, and provocative themes, will at many points remind some readers—as it did me—of works by Daniel Defoe, H. G. Wells, Franz Kafka, or H. P. Lovecraft. Certainly some readers will see the tale as an engrossing Gothic horror tale filled with surreal terror, and others will see it as speculative science fiction teeming with stimulating philosophical reflections. Still other readers will see it as a robust and savory example of magical realism in the tradition of Gunter Grass, Jorge Luis Borges, and Gabriel Garcia-Marquez.

Cold Skin seems simultaneously to be a legitimate and uniquely compelling descendant of all of the above. More specifically, though, I think all readers—regardless of their initial reactions—will thoroughly embrace Piñol’s elegantly brutal novel and see it ultimately as a disturbingly phantasmagoric allegory that unerringly meditates on the most profound meanings, potentials, and limits of solitude, violence, and humanity. Tim Davis, Department of English and Foreign Languages, University of West Florida

© 2005 The Barcelona Review
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issue 51: January - February 2006


Niall Griffiths: Coming of Age
David Ramos Fernandes:
Nora Pierce:
Guess Who Loves Me Now?
Caroline Kepnes:
Katie Arnsteen:
Long Ride Home

picks from back issues

Pete Duval: Fun With Mammals
Adam Johnson:
Trauma Plate


James Meek


Harold Pinter
answers to last issue’s quiz, Harry Potter

book reviews

The People’s Act of Love by James Meek
The Blind Rider by Juan Goytisolo
Borrowed Light by Joolz Denby
Cold Skin by Albert Sánchez Piñol

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