Friday, August 05, 2011

I've never know any trouble than an hour's reading didn't assuage.


E is for...? Marieville Esplanade, Sandy Bay. August 2011.

A good week’s reading had this week, packed with quality.

First up is Ian McEwan’s Black Dogs. An interesting exercise in creative writing, Black Dogs ‘mashes up’ the concept of a constructed autobiography.

The story revolves around a frightening event which changed the whole life of the narrator's mother-in-law, and ripples throughout a family (continuing through to the extended family). Compounding the effect, the experience was not shared by her husband. Thus set in transit is a conflict of one partner’s pragmatic, scientific and materialistic beliefs set against another’s faith-based, spiritual journey. So, in spite of an enduring love and attachment, the couple part and pursue their own lives, shuffling children between the two worlds.

Constructed in flashbacks (and flash-forward’s, and assumed reconstructed events by the narrator), the human interest is never overwhelmed by subtexts that include exploration of class, gender, political and social change, power and evil. Exquisite story-telling ensures that both the reader and the narrator are glued to events until the revelation of event at the centre of the piece.

Like much of McEwan’s work, Black Dogs is an odd and at times unpleasant read. Like all good fiction though, it inevitably propel you to can look deeper and contemplate the ideas long after you’ve finished the book. Highly recommended.

Secondly, we have Fair Play, a novel by Finnish author Tove Jansson best known for the Moomin children’s books. Fair Play is quite a different love story than that normally recounted in fiction, a revelatory depiction of contentment. I feel rather bad in reporting that although I enjoyed the book stylistically, and love the fact that it so simply and touchingly recounts the decades-long love affair of two (now elderly) ladies, it was all a bit... well, dull.

Essentially a loose collection of vignettes of the lives of two artists, perhaps Jansson's touch is just a mite too gentle for my frame of mind of late. Recommendation? If you’re into that kind of thing.

Last up is Götz and Meyer, by Serbian author David Albahari. This novel explores familiar territory, but in a profoundly original way.

An incredibly unsettling tale of obsession and memory, it is much more than your straightforward Holocaust-as-narrative-device-to-explore-the-concept-of-evil. Yes, the historical aspect of the killing of Belgrade's Jews during World War Two is fascinating, but this tale is on that quite openly reflects on the inherent incompatibility of history and storytelling.

Stylistacally the novel is striking. Essentially one unbroken paragraph (yes, just one), the unnamed narrator is a teacher haunted by the missing branches and question marks that dominate his family tree.

Obsessed by the task of reconstructing this family tree, he becomes lost in the records of the camp at the Jewish Historical Museum in Belgrade. In particularly, among huge stacks of documents and seemingly endless lists of victims, he discovers the names of Götz and Meyer, the two SS members employed to drive the truck in which the narrator's family, along with five thousand others, were murdered.

Yet aside from the simple fact of their names, arrival and departure dates from Serbia, the figures of Götz and Meyer exist wholly in their reconstruction. Indeed, the opening sentence of the text reads, "Götz and Meyer. Having never seen them, I can only imagine them."

As such, the narration is propelled with long and digressive sentences peppered with phrases like "as the documents tell us," "apparently," or "more likely." This constant hedging, reconstructing, evening out, and doubling back reinforces the fact that the narrator's obsession borders into psychosis, the subject matter compelling the world to become darker and less certain.

As the narrator gradually fills in the blank spaces on his family tree, he cannot avoid dwelling on the executioners. In the absence of any details of Götz or Meyer, he fixates on what he does know: the truck (which is reconstructs in painstaking - and painful - detail). Driven by an attempt at understanding their actions, the characters are built up and supposed from multiple angles. As this obsession grows, Götz, Meyer and the narrator himself become indistinguishable.

This is an immensely moving book, painful for sure, but actually incredibly touching. As a student of history it struck me as an important lesson in telling stories about a lost past.

At a conceptual level, the unusual style lends itself to the perhaps pointless task of identifying the 'meaning' behind the deepest levels of human atrocity. As the generation that bore witness to an era of European history that we have sworn to 'never forget', making sense of what could easily be considered humanity's darkest days has never been more difficult.

This books has probably struck me more profoundly than any other this year. I couldn't recommend it more highly. Not for the faint-hearted, but hugely rewarding.

2 comments:

Roddy said...

My little brother used to sign himself Big E.

Roddy said...

I'm flat out reading one book a year. How you do more than one a week has me guessing?