‘Monsieur Linh and his child’ by Philippe Claudel

monsieur-linh-and-his-childThis French novella is so good that as soon as I finished the last page I skipped it straight to the front of my reviewing list and sat down to write about it.

Monsieur Linh is an elderly refugee fleeing his war-torn country with only some old clothes, a handful of soil from his village, a photograph of his deceased wife, and his six-week-old baby granddaughter. The baby’s parents, Monsieur Linh’s son and daughter-in-law, were killed in a bomb blast, and the baby is the only family he has left. Terrified of the country he seeks refuge in, he is estranged from everyone he meets, as he does not understand the language or the behaviour of the natives. In turn, the natives are mostly hostile, mocking or indifferent towards him. Monsieur Linh spends his days in this strange new country gently and dilligently caring for his granddaughter: feeding her, cleaning her and falling asleep next to her. She is keeping him alive – he looks after himself only in order to protect her and to see her grow to adulthood.

“I am your grandfather,” Monsieur Linh tells her, “and we are together, there are two of us, the only two, the last two. But don’t be afraid, I am here, nothing can happen to you. I am old, but I’ll still have enough strength, as long as it is needed, as long as you are a little green mango in need of an old mango tree.”

On a walk around the streets of his new home, Monsieur Linh meets a man named Monsieur Bark in a chance encounter. Monsieur Bark is a  native who shows him kindness, and like Linh is also a widower. Although they do not speak each other’s language, the two men become friends. They share cigarettes, food and drink, and communicate through universal physical gestures of respect, affection and solidarity – a bow, a comforting hand on the shoulder. But even as Monsieur Linh begins to emerge out of his shell, their friendship is threatened.

Monsieur Linh and his child is deceptively simple in style and plot and beautifully written. It has a devastating twist, only revealed right at the end, and in the middle of a paragraph so that the reader’s confused mind does a double-take. The twist casts everything that went before it in a completely different light. Clues as to what the twist might be were present earlier in the book, but were so incredibly skilfully presented that I didn’t add them together to get the truth. The twist makes the story even more poignant, and helps us to understand the way that some of the characters act towards Linh.

Neither Linh’s native country nor the country of refuge are named, but they are (probably, respectively) Vietnam/Laos/Cambodia and France, following the fallout from the Indochina Wars. The countries do not need to be explicitly named because the situations warring countries find themselves in have universal relevance – I can imagine, with a few tweaks, Indochina and France being replaced by Afghanistan and the UK or the US, for example. The story illustrates the terrible emotional damage that war inflicts on both victims (trauma) and agressors (guilt). It also provides some perspective to the current refugee crisis and our responses to it. Monsier Linh is a beneficiary of charity of sorts from the country that he flees to, but he also helps the Frenchman to regain his own humanity.

Why does this sort of short, simple, powerful fable not get written in the English language very often in modern times? Maybe we are reluctant to read novellas, thinking that short books are not worth bothering with. We might want more pages for our money: I once worked in a bookshop where a customer got outraged at the idea of paying £7 for a copy of T.S. Eliot’s The waste land because it had less pages than the average book. Or perhaps we think books that are short in length are also stunted on drama. The bestsellers that get the media hype are often blockbuster epics like Game of thrones or Harry Potter, long series of books released over years. But dismissing shorter fiction is a mistake. Novellas, freed from baggy scene-fillers and capable of being read in one go in the time it would take to watch a film, can pack a powerfully intense emotional punch. Some of my favourite books are either novellas or short novels (The hen who dreamed she could fly, Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome, Irène Némirovsky’s Fire in the blood). Plus, many great classics of literature technically count as novellas, including Animal farm, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and A Christmas carol.

Humane and gently optimistic without being dull, trite or sentimental – Monsieur Linh and his child is a true tonic.

‘A Game of Thrones’ by George R. R. Martin

a-game-of-thrones

This is my first post in a long time, as I’ve been pretty busy recently. Now that the dust has settled, I felt I really couldn’t avoid writing a review of the most recent book I’ve read. It’s a big one. It’s Game of thrones.

At any given point in the last few years, at least one of the titles in the Song of Ice and Fire series has been riding highy in the bestsellers list. And now, having (belatedly) read the first book, I can see why. Quite simply, it’s brilliant.

Theoretically, this is fantasy fiction. And it does have a few fantasy elements, such as the zombie-like predators ‘the Others’ and, erm, dragons. I like fantasy fiction, but if it’s not usually your cup of tea don’t let that put you off. Between the two supernatural threats of the Others in the austere, frozen north (‘ice’) and the dragons in the exotic, passionate east (‘fire’), a kaleidoscope of colourful human characters display very human characteristics as they battle, intrigue and scheme to try to seize the Iron Throne. Aristocrats, warriors, courtiers, children and outcasts find themselves caught up – sometimes unwillingly – in the struggle. The stakes are high, and this is what provides the story with its page-turning drama. As the heartless Queen Cersei explains to the honourable (and therefore clueless) Eddard Stark:

“When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.”

All this brings to mind historical dynastic struggles such as the War of the Roses, and in fact Game of thrones reads like completely believable historical fiction. Like Cynthia Voigt‘s Jackaroo, it’s set in a sort-of-medieval-but-not-really landscape. The Europe-ish continent of Westeros has knights, jousting tournaments and a feudal system, whereas the Asia-ish continent Essos has bazaars, dancing women and a tribal horse-riding warrior people named the Dothraki. These medieval touches supply a vivid and realistic atomsphere without the author’s imagination being cramped by the need for historical accuracy.

The story is told from multiple viewpoints, which means we can see the motivations and rationale behind different characters’ actions, making us more sympathetic towards (most) of them. It also makes the story absorbing as the story flicks back and forth between different plot threads. Martin is not afraid to kill off major characters, even those whose eyes we’ve been seeing the action through and are consequently emotionally invested in. This is another thing that makes it realistic, especially when compared to action movies where the hero escapes a thousand bullets whilst sketchily-drawn minor characters die all around him.

If you haven’t read Game of Thrones, I advise you to do so. And if you’ve read all the series so far and can’t wait for George R. R. Martin to publish the final two (or possibly more) books, I’d recommend giving Maurice Druon’s Accursed Kings series a go: as well as being one of Martin’s influences, this is a fantastic series in its own right. Meanwhile, I’ll probably be spending the next year or so reading the other six books of A song of ice and fire.

‘The Iron King’ by Maurice Druon

Iron King photoAccording to George R. R. Martin, this book was the inspiration for Game of Thrones. I admit I haven’t actually read or seen Game of Thrones (I know; my bad. I’m not keen on watching the TV series as I find screen violence a lot more disturbing than page violence. And at the moment I’m too lazy to wade through all the books). From what other people have told me though, the appeal of Game of Thrones is the high-octane drama. And The Iron King has drama in spades.

The ‘Iron King’ of the title is Philip IV of France (1268-1314). An absolute monarch, he ruled ruthlessly, grabbing power for himself and placing his relatives on thrones wherever he could. He even arrested Pope Boniface VIII and installed Clement V as a kind of pet pope at Avignon, where he could keep an eye on him.

This cruel and dispassionate prince was concerned with the ideal of the nation. Under his reign France was great and the French wretched.

Philip sought to eliminate all rival powers. He expelled the Jews from France in 1306, and in 1307 attacked the ancient institution of the Knights Templar. After a fierce political struggle, he finally ordered the leaders of the Knights Templar to be publicly burnt at the stake. The execution is supposed to be a demonstration of the Iron King’s strength, but the mood shifts when the Grand Master of the Knights Templar declaims against Philip from the pyre:

The Grand Master’s burning face was turned towards the royal loggia. And the terrible voice cried, “Pope Clement, Chevalier Guillaume de Nogaret, King Philip, I summon you to the Tribunal of Heaven before the year is out, to receive your just punishment! Accursed! Accursed! You shall be accursed to the thirteenth generation of your lines!”

The rest of book is concerned with the working out of the curse. It is followed by six other books concerning the fate of Philip’s descendents, the seven books together forming the Accursed Kings sequence.

The main theme of The iron king is power: how to get it, and how to keep it. Some of the characters – the royal family and the aristocracy – are born into it. Others gain it through religion (the pope, cardinals and archbishops), wealth (the Lombard bankers), or their own guile and cunning (courtiers, advisers and politicians). But power doesn’t last forever. When dictators and tyrants seem at their most invincible, they are often at their peak and a fall is not far away. The higher they are, the greater they fall. These falls provide both the drama and the poignancy that gives the story its depth.

The Iron King has compelling characters dealing with high-pressure situations against the backdrop of a richly realised medieval Europe. Feuding factions struggle for power through intrigue, scheming, and sorcery. I will definitely be reading the rest of the series.

‘Darkness at Pemberley’ by T.H. White

Darkness at Pemberley photoThis book is utterly bizarre.

First published in 1932, it begins as a standard murder mystery set in a (fictional) Cambridge college. Two deaths occur in one night at the University: a much-disliked senior don, and a young, seemingly innocent and ordinary undergraduate. The obvious conclusion seems to be that the don murdered the undergraduate and then committed suicide. However, in the time-honoured tradition of crime fiction, the detective called in to investigate thinks there is more to the situation than meets the eye …

For 100 pages this story pretty much sticks to the conventions of college crime fiction, then suddenly the murderer is revealed, along with their motive and method. So we know who committed the crime, why and how: what on earth is the rest of the story going to be about? This is where it gets truly original. For instead of being a simple mystery puzzle, it abruptly becomes a thriller featuring the descendents of Fitzwilliam Darcy and Elizabeth née Bennet. Yes, really. The descendents of the hero and heroine of Pride and Prejudice. Hence the ‘Pemblerley’ of the title, as the rest of the book is set in the Darcy stately home in Derbyshire. The Pride and Prejudice reference is not exactly central to the plot; it seems White just liked the idea. And why not?

On top of college mystery + thriller + Pride and Prejudice spinoff is another key element: humour. It percolates through the novel and somehow makes the whole crazy hybrid work. It’s particularly noticeable in the scene where the Darcys’ butler, Kingdom, keeps guard in the hall of Pemberley while a search for the hidden murderer is on. The passage is both atmospheric and (intentionally) comic:

Meanwhile darkness had fallen. Kingdom had stood alone in the gathering dusk of the old house whilst the great hall sank about him imperceptibly through waves and waves of gloom. The invisibility welled up from the distant corners and sank downwards from the domed ceiling, gradually stealing its last glints from the chandelier. At last only the silent ghost of a white moustache hung suspended in the night.

As if all this weren’t enough of a head-mess, the characters also have a rather meta habit of referring to crime fiction. At one point, Inspector Buller is able to get himself out of a tricky situation because of knowledge gained from reading a lot of crime novels. In another scene, Buller and the Darcys are discussing the murderer’s actions. The Darcys cannot understand why the murderer is acting in a certain way. Impatiently, Inspector Buller replies:

“You can’t argue normally, or there wouldn’t be any murders at all. But there are murders. We shall just have to pretend we’re in a detective story.”

The ‘college mystery’ element is neat: mad as a box of frogs, as most of the genre is, but clever and well thought out. As a thriller, it’s not the best. The criminal is a pantomime villain, possessing almost supernatural powers, and being unrepentantly evil. It’s not as emotionally intense as a psychological thriller such as the best of Daphne du Maurier or Patricia Highsmith, and doesn’t have as fast-paced or twisted a plot as, for example, Robert Ludlum’s Bourne novels. But as a whole it’s a hugely entertaining and highly original oddity. I am now even more keen to re-read White’s most famous work, The sword in the stone.

‘The sweetness of life’ by Françoise Héritier

Sweetness of life photoHow often do we feel truly alive? We spend one third of our lives asleep. As adults, most of our waking time is devoted to activities where we are concentrating on a task to be achieved: paid employment, commuting to work, household chores, food shopping, getting dressed, brushing teeth, making sandwiches, and remembering to take keys with us when we step out of the front door. We can spend hours, days or even weeks without pausing in our busyness to appreciate the vivid experience of being a living, thinking, feeling animal.

The French anthropologist Françoise Héritier was prompted to write The sweetness of life when she received a postcard from a friend of hers, a hard-working medical professor, who guiltily described a week’s holiday as ‘stolen’. Héritier counters:

 

You didn’t ‘steal’ your holiday in the sense of pilfering or misappropriating property. Instead, I would say that you are stealing from your own life every day.

She follows this with a list of all the things that, like holidays, she feels provide life with its ‘sweetness’. Some of the things are personal and specific to her – a French academic who has spent years living in Africa – while some of the things are universal. They run the full gamut from the intellectual pleasures to be found in books, plays and films to physical sensations, and the heightened nature of experiences had in the company of friends and family. Some of the things are not even pleasures as such: they are neutral or even painful, but are included because they are intense experiences, and help her to feel alive. The original French title was actually Le sel de la vie – ‘The salt of life’ – which is more appropriate than ‘sweetness’. It could equally have been translated as ‘The zest of life’.

The sweetness of life is very simple, and very short. Apart from a few pages at the beginning and the end, it is simply a list. If it had been any longer this could have been tedious, but as it was I read in it one sitting, in a couple of hours, and was totally absorbed. I’ll end with some of my favourite items on Héritier’s list:

 

  • Smiling at someone who’s not expecting it
  • Sitting down in an armchair too deep for you
  • Watching a cat from above when it doesn’t know you’re watching it
  • Clearing out your cupboards
  • Feeling your taste buds react to ginger
  • Coming to terms with what you hate
  • Remembering the shame of faux pas committed in the past
  • Touching sensitive plants
  • Warm rye bread cut up in a tart, potatoes ‘for the pigs’ cooked in a big pan, freshly churned butter and cake with black cherries
  • Making a ladybird walk on your finger
  • Regretting that I don’t look good in a hat
  • Sometimes remaining naive and not minding
  • Feeling carried away by a heavy, rhythmic swell at sea and forgetting that everything is finite
  • Rebelling against stupidity at the right moment
  • Liking the look of windmills
  • Trying to catch yourself snoring
  • Planting a big kiss on the nose of a cat who took offence
  • Feeling sudden outbursts of joy as you might feel fits of heat

 

‘The scriptlings’ by Sorin Suciu

Scriptlings photoThis comic fantasy novel introduces a new fictional world, a highly original mash-up of technology and magic. ‘Scriptlings’ are magicians’ apprentices. They learn from their masters how to cast spells using dead languages such as Sumerian and Latin. Casting spells is presented as being similar to computer programming, and throughout the novel Suciu plays on the similarities between modern technology and magic. The cast list features three magicians, two scriptlings, and The Tribe, a people nomadic through both space and time, reincarnated over thousands of generations throughout human history. Oh, and a magician’s familiar who (usually) takes the form of a goat named Gertrude.

As you may have guessed, The scriptlings revels in its geekiness. The reading experience is greatly enhanced if you have any knowledge or interest in computer games or fantasy literature. Computing references abound – but you don’t have to have a degree in programming to get the jokes. For example, one of the minor characters is a virtual assistant who appears in a character’s field of vision. He looks like a staple and is in fact named Stapley. As Suciu freely admits in an endnote, he is quite clearly a spoof of Microsoft Office’s Clippit/Clippy (Yes, that irritating paperclip with the suggestive eyebrows. Blast from the (90s/00s) past).

The scriptlings is stuffed full of jokes. I particularly liked one character’s casual reference to having attended a conference with the theme of Investigating the Merits of Esperanto as a Candidate Dead Language in Modern Spell Casting. I can just imagine a group of magicians earnestly debating this topic, taking sides for and against Esperanto, and tempers flaring as the debate gets heated – perhaps ending in an undignified scuffle. It reinforces the image I have of magicians being academics.

For me however, it was the playful inventiveness that made this book comic, rather than the jokes as such. The fun comes from the openness to playing around with ideas and language. It’s somewhat like a Jasper Fforde novel for technology instead of literature. The plot is twisty, with many threads that are carefully untangled over the course of the story. The set-up is surreal, but internally coherent, to the extent that I read the following passage and actually found myself nodding in agreement, and thinking, “Of course, that makes sense!”

“Have we all been so blind as to not understand the dangers posed to us by the advent of computers? All this seemingly inoffensive computer does is cast very simple, all-but-diluted spells over and over again. No harm done, I hear you say, but you couldn’t be more wrong. The bitter truth is that Magic is not an inexhaustible resource. We didn’t know that until recent years. How could we have? Until now there hasn’t been anything in the world as voracious as computers constantly feeding on Magic. How else can we explain the decreasing numbers of Magicians over the last decades?”

I received a free ebook of The scriptlings in return for an honest review. I’d never actually read an ebook before; I had to commandeer my partner’s Kindle to read it. I was curious about how ebooks would compare to printed books (pbooks?) and was surprised at how pleasant the reading experience was. For me, ebooks can’t replace printed books: I love the tactile nature of books and am proud of my (weird, useless) ability to date a book to within a few years by sniffing the pages. But I can see that ebooks would sometimes be more convenient, and may read some again in the future.

‘Sharpe’s gold’ by Bernard Cornwell

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFor every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Hence, after gorging myself on emotionally compelling fiction, I found myself reaching for a Sharpe novel to read next. Richard Sharpe doesn’t do emotion. Or, rather, he has emotions (lusty; vengeful; mad as hell), but they are not the reason you read a Sharpe book. It’s the swashbuckling action that draws you in and keeps you reading.

The novels trace the career of fictional British soldier Richard Sharpe. Almost all of them take place during the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) except for a ‘prequel’ set in India, and one final send-off dated 1820-21. Bernard Cornwell said that he wanted to do for Wellington’s army what C. S. Forester did for Nelson’s navy with his Horatio Hornblower series. I’ve never read the Hornblower books (I fear they might contain too much rigging), so to me Richard Sharpe is basically James Bond with a 19th-century rifle and pantaloons. He’s tough, there’s never any doubt that he’ll beat the villain, and he always gets the girl.

Sharpe’s gold is set in 1810, slap-bang in the middle of the war. British morale is low: Spain has fallen to Napoleon’s troops and it looks like Britain will be next. Amid the pessimism, Sharpe is summoned to Wellington’s office, where he is instructed to carry out a dangerous secret mission. He must travel into French-occupied Spain to collect a cache of gold from a fierce band of Spanish guerillas and smuggle it back to the British army in Portugal. Without the gold, he is informed, the campaign against Napoleon will end in defeat.

He pushed a piece of paper over the table. Sharpe unfolded it. ‘Captain Sharpe is directed by my orders and all Officers of the Allied Armies are requested and instructed to offer Captain Sharpe any assistance he may require’. The signature was a simple ‘Wellington’.

“There’s no mention of gold?” Sharpe had expected elucidation at this meeting. He seemed to find only more mysteries.

“We didn’t think it wise to tell too many people about a great pile of gold that’s looking for an owner. It sort of encourages greed, if you follow me.”

Of course, it’s not going to be as simple as simply picking up the gold and returning to Wellington: Sharpe will need all his wits and courage to carry out the mission. What follows is the patented Cornwell blend of heart-stopping action and military strategy, incorporating the siege and spectacular destruction of the Portuguese city of Almeida.

The edition that I read had a section at the end where Bernard Cornwell explains how he came to write the Sharpe novels, and how they developed over time as he wrote them. In it, he says that one of the best things about writing historical fiction is that it enables the writer to ‘explain’ small mysteries of past events in a way that historians are not allowed to do. In this novel, he takes the known facts of the destruction of Almeida and weaves a story about how it could have happened – with Richard Sharpe as a key player. I like this playfulness with history, and I also like his admission about the somewhat ad hoc nature of his series:

What did I know of my hero? … I knew he was an officer who had come up from the ranks, because that would give him some problems in his own army, but beyond that, not much. I described him at the beginning of the book as tall and black-haired, which was fine till Sean Bean came along, after which I tried not to mention his hair colour ever again. I gave him a scarred cheek, though for the life of me I can never remember which cheek has the scar and I suspect it changes from book to book.

The reader is never going to notice the wandering scar; they’ll be too busy enjoying the action. Besides, it’s impossible not to like a book that features a rooftop sword-fight with a villainous Spaniard.