Monday, April 27, 2009

The Burnt-Out Town of Miracles - Roy Jacobson

Like 'The Archivist's Story' this IMPAC nominated novel takes place in 1939, in a town in Finland - Suomussalmi. During the winter of 1939/40 the town was the scene of a battle between Finnish and Russian forces following the Russian invasion of Finland. The Finns initially retreated before the Russian advance practicing a scorched earth policy of burning the town so that when the Russians arrived they would have no shelter. The battle that followed the Russian arrival in the town, the tactics used by the Finnish army and the resultant Finnish victory against overwhelming odds, is taught at Sandhurst and Westpoint today.
Timo, regarded as the village idiot, refuses to leave town when ordered to do so by the Authorities. He was born in the town and has lived there all his life, it is the only place he knows. His decision confirms his place in the eyes of the villagers as an idiot as both winter and the Russians are nigh. When the Russians arrive they also regard Timo as a simpleton, after all who would stay in a village that had been burned and captured? Timo is put to work cutting timber for the Russians with a group of Russian misfits who are unable to function as soldiers. It is Timo's relationship with this group and their fortunes during the Russian occupation of Suomussalmi that form the core of this novel.

Doubts as to Timo's idiocy surface early as it is clear that he regards his personal circumstances as his own business
'it's strange it has to be repeated so often'
clearly therefore he is more an outsider than an idiot, unwilling to explain his personal choices to others and not seeing why he should. Being an outsider means that Timo can not be expected to conform either to what Finnish authorities want of him nor the stereotypical image the Russians have of a captured civilian during wartime. Timo sees the Russians around him first and foremost as men, then Russians. This leads him to do otherwise inexplicable things, telling the Russians about the surrounding countryside and positively helping them by chopping wood. Living the novel through an outsiders eyes gives us the opportunity to look at society from the outside, what we see is the outsider acting as a human being.
Timo also views his fellow loggers as men first. They are clearly unfit for the role assigned to them by the Russian authorities and Timo takes it on himself to teach them how to survive in the harsh Finnish winter. The cold is a major element of the novel - what it is like and how to survive it. There is a lot of going to bed, sleeping, eating and cleaning in the story. When the Russians began their offensive many of the troops came from the Crimea and were unused to such harsh conditions. The Soviet army was ill equip both in terms of heavy mechanisation which confined them to roads and with regard to winter camouflage clothing for the troops. Timo teaches the loggers the importance of taking care of yourself in the cold, in such cold humans become careless and when they are careless it is easy to freeze to death. But the Russian loggers also save Timo from being an outsider, he becomes part of a group and finds strength in himself
'I could never have managed it alone, and in a way ... it was they who saved me, just as much as I had saved them'

One of the elements of the novel that is of interest is the inability of Timo to speak Russian and the Russians to speak Finnish. How therefore do the various characters communicate? In an interview with Ramona Koval of ABC National in Australia Roy Jacobson explained his intention

'it's actually a non verbal novel...It's about the most basic kind of human communication that you can imagine and I wanted to keep that because it's actually a book about a man who, under circumstances where most of us would act like animals, he finds an opportunity to act like a human being. That's the miracle I'm writing about...He actually finds out in himself that he actually becomes a bigger human being for doing these so called good things for his enemy'

There is therefore a moral ambiguity about the book which is intriguing, is Timo right or wrong, is he a hero or a coward? Timo himself believes he is neither all he wanted to do is survive and faced for the first time with others who had none of the skills of survival he had, who looked up to him and admired him, he drew strength from the Russian's weakness and became more than he had ever been before.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Archivist's Story - Travis Holland

Published in The UK in 2007 'The Archivist's Story' has been shortlisted for the Dublin IMPAC Award, the most valuable literary award for a work published in English. The six shortlisted books were selected from 146 titles nominated by public libraries in 117 countries making the award one of the most unique in the world and the six shortlisted books some of the best fiction you are likely to read.

Travis Holland takes us back to 1939 when Europe is on the brink of war and Stalin is at the head of Soviet Russia. Pavel Dubrov is working as an Archivist in the Lubyanka cataloguing and sorting the mountain of manuscripts censored by the NKVD ( precursor to the KGB ) whose authors are 'disappeared', either dead, exiled or prisoners in the very prison where Pavel works. A former teacher of literature Pavel's job is ultimately to burn an author's complete body of work when their file is eventually closed.

Holland explores the meaning of memory and literature's place in memory. The society in which Holland's characters exist is a place with no memory, where it can be dangerous to remember, thus famines become 'disruptions', a son must stand by whilst his father is denounced and arrested and you can not talk about those who have disappeared.

'...the Lubyanka is simply a microcosm of Moscow itself, where night by night the black sedans and unmarked prison trucks - black ravens, black Marias - slip down the darkened narrow lanes and alleyways, going about their terrible business'

A turning point comes for Pavel when he is instructed to meet with Isaac Babel to clear up the authorship of a short story which has not been recorded in an evidence manifest. Babel was a Jewish short story writer and his final statement to his NKVD Military Tribunal on January 26 1940 is included at the start of the book. At this point in the story Babel is confined in the Lubyanka and almost without thinking Pavel slips the story out of the prison and hides it in his basement. Thereafter we follow Pavel as he comes to realise that:

'With every manuscript he destroys,Pavel can feel a little more of his soul being chipped this time next year there will be nothing left of him.'

This image of there being nothing left of Pavel is echoed in the deterioration of his mother who is suffering blackouts and memory loss due to a suspected brain tumour. His mother's insistence that nothing be done leaves Pavel feeling that there is nothing left for his mother but diminishment and loss and that when she no longer recognises him or their life together there will be two deaths, her past and his. Pavel is therefore facing a future where he will not be remembered.

Literature is also dying in the flames of the Lubyanka's incinerator. Literature is

'A window, Pavel thinks. An entire world.'

and to contemplate life with

'no stories, no novels or plays, no poems. Just empty shelves. The end of history.'

What Pavel is taking to the incinerator is therefore our history. Novels, storys, poems and plays are how we make sense of ourselves and our history. Without them we have no history and with no history we can not know ourselves.

Pavel saves another of Babel's stories and in doing so he can say

'I lived'

but in doing so he also knows he can not stop a bullet with paper and therefore prepares himself. The ending is entirely appropriate as our imagination takes us beyond the story and into the world Holland has created, where we wait to hear the sound of a car sent - perhaps - to take us.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Through Black Spruce
Joseph Boyden

Joseph Boyden's second novel is a meditation on family and identity, both personal and cultural, which takes us from the frozen wastelands of Northern Canada to, in another sense, the frozen wastelands of Toronto, Vancouver and New York City. This is the second in what is rumoured to be a trilogy of works, the first being 'Three Day Road' which was nominated for The Governor General's award in Canada and winner of the Roger's Writers fiction prize, both in 2005. This reader had not read 'Three Day Road' before reading 'Through Black Spruce'.

The novel follows two intertwining stories, that of Will Bird who is in a coma and his niece, Annie Bird, who sets out on a quest to find her missing younger sister Suzanne. Will narrates his story from his coma and Annie tells her story to her Uncle in a bid to wake him. The events they relate catalogue how each of them deals with the conflicts that have arisen within their 'clan' - in it's broadest sense the Cree Aboriginal First Nation People of Mooseonee and in its narrower sense of their family- and the incursion into their community of 'civilisation' with all it's attendant problems of addiction, trauma and Oprah .

The catalyst for the problems Will and Annie face is the disappearance of Suzanne one Christmas morning with Gus Netmaker, her boyfriend. The Netmakers began as bootleggers and graduated to suppliers of drugs to the local community but the local police seem unable or unwilling to move against them. Following Suzanne and Gus' disappearance, Gus' brother Maurius believes Will is informing on the Netmakers and his business partners to the police. Further, Maurius and his associates are searching for the two runaways as they have stolen from the cartel.

Upon this structure Boyden explores the options open to the First Nation Peoples in the face of this incursion of evils from civilisation. Will fleas to the barren north and begins to live as his ancestors did exploring the traditional ways however he is plagued by his own addiction to alcohol. Annie, in pursuit of her sister, travels south and embraces the modern world, she sheds her tomboy past and becomes seduced by the seemingly easy money and lifestyle of modeling. As Will states early in the novel

'you...put out your gill net and pull in options like fish'

but options are closing in both for the Cree as a people and for the Birds. Neither Will nor Annie can survive in the worlds they have chosen and both return to Mooseonee with violence in tow.

Boyden, who was born into a strict Irish catholic family,draws on his own experiences and that of his family to craft this novel. He spent his summers as a teenager living on the streets of Toronto and at the age of 16 began travelling to the United States on his own. He is himself balancing the two parts of his ancestry, the Irish Catholic with the Ojibwe, by spending part of his time in New Orleans and part in the Arctic Gulf. In an interview with Constance Droganes for CTV he says

'If you don't know your personal history you're doomed to repeat it...We may think the past is something we don't need. But that's not true - not to my mind'

This is an important novel, dealing as it does with matters of cultural, family and personal identity but it does not always convince. Whilst Will's narrative is compelling and vivid Annie's task is made harder by the sterility of her life away from home. Her narrative fails to engage partly for this reason and also because elements of her experience are contrived - fits that are cast as visions, her city Indian 'Protector' (who is brought back to the old ways) and an old Indian mystic figure living on the streets of Toronto. However, these issues aside Boyden has created a fine novel which explores the balancing act of competing identities, as he himself explains

'My heart is part Irish, part Ojibwe. I'm a Canadian in America. I'm grounded by history, and I am inspired by legend.'

'Through Black Spruce' won the Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2008 and has been published in the UK this year and is therefore eligible for consideration for The Man Booker Prize. In my view it is one to watch!

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Reading to your inner Child

It has been a stressful week and my mind couldn't settle to serious reading. On Thursday a large order arrived at the shop and as I was unpacking boxes I pulled out 'Flood and Fang' by Marcus Sedgwick with illustrations by Pete Williamson and I knew what I was to read next.

'Flood and Fang' is narrated by Edgar the Guardian of Otherhand Castle who it seems is the only sane one among the inhabitants of the castle.

'Castle Otherhand is home to all sorts of oddballs, lunatics and fruitcakes'

and when Edgar spots something nasty in the castle grounds he is right to sense trouble. Unfortunately the other inhabitants of the castle don't have any sense at all and it is left to Edgar to come up with a rescue plan before the Otherhands run out of maids and the castle, who has decided to become involved, successfully brings its own plan to fruition!

The writing is such that the book demands to be read aloud and the language does not talk down to either reader or listener, so it will be up to any adult reading to supply definitions of meanings and phrases for the young listener. However, the book works on several levels so that there is humour for child and adult alike:

'Maybe it's her hair. It's long and black, as black as the feathers of old Mrs Edgar; black and shiny as coal, right up to the very day she fell out of the tree and the dogs ate her. Happy days.'

And whilst the Raven swear words will pass clear over a young listeners head Mum or Dad will know exactly what is being said.

A hugely enjoyable book which is not just for the independent reader - it is a little slice of Gormenghast for the young!

But it is what happened next that caused one of those eureka moments. Son the Younger who is seven picked up the book and started to read it, about 15 pages in when I asked how he was getting on he said 'Why is her voice like warm milk?' I mentally did a war dance of triumph whilst trying to explain imagery and metaphor in a way he would understand. A book like this is a rare thing to be cherished and deserves every bit of attention that it can get.

Finally a word about Pete Williamson's illustrations which appear on every page of the book, they enhance the reading experience no end and it is to be hoped that the future books in the series (at least five) will be as funny and knowing and as beautifully illustrated.

I would urge everyone with a 6 to 8 year old in the house to buy this book and grandparents to give it to their grandchildren!