The Birdcage Archives

Friday 28 July 2017

The Man Booker Prize Longlist, 2017

Hello Gentle Reader

Summer is burning off, while autumn lurks right around corner; and the literary award season is beginning to start up once again. Yesterday, the Booker Prize released its longlist, for this year’s Booker Prize, which contains thirteen novels and writers, predominately dominated by English (U.K.) and American writers, and even more interestingly enough, it favours established prize winning authors.

The longlist as follows:

Arundhati Roy – India – “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness,”
Paul Auster – U.S. – “4321,”
Ali Smith – U.K – “Autumn,”
Kamila Shamsie – U.K./Pakistan – “Home Fire,”
Colson Whitehead – U.S. – “The Underground Railroad,”
Mike McCormak – Ireland – “Solar Bones,”
Moshin Hamad – U.K./Pakistan – Exit West,”
Emily Fridlund – U.S. – “History of Wolves,”
Sebastian Barry – Ireland – “Days Without End,”
George Saunders – U.S. – “Lincoln in the Bardo,”
Fiona Mozely – U.K. – “Elmet,”
John McGregor – U.K. – “Reservoir 13,”
Zadie Smith – U.K. – “Swing Time,”

This years Booker Prize longlist hosts: six female writers, and seven male writers; four writers are form the U.S, while six writers are from the U.K.—two of which duel with Pakistan; there are two writers from Ireland, and one writer from India. On this year’s longlist there are two debut writers: Fiona Mozely and Emily Fridlund; while the other are writers are either established, prize winning or well-known. Arundhati Roy is one of the more interesting writers on the list. “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness,” is her second novel in twenty-years; where her first novel: “The God of Small Things,” won the Booker Prize in nineteen-seventy seven. It should come to no surprise that of the longlisted authors Arundhati Roy is receiving the most attention, and is highly suspected to end up on the shortlist. Ali Smith is no stranger to the Booker Prize either, often being nominated and shortlisted for the prize, but passed over in favour of others. Zadie Smith, is the wonderkid of English literature, she came to fame in the early two-thousands with her debut: “White Teeth.” Since then, Zadie Smith has been of the most recognizable writers of contemporary English literature, her last nomination for the Booker Prize was in two-thousand and five, with her novel “On Beauty.” Paul Auster makes an appearance on the list with his newest novel in seven years: “4321,” which is an eight-hundred and eighty page whooper. Auster is a well known American writer, who has been nominated for many literary awards, including the IMPAC Literary Dublin award eight times. Austre has been called a postmodernist master of American fiction. George Saunders is a well known American writer, who has only produced short stories and the occasional novella; until now. “Lincoln in the Bardo,” is his debut novel, and has been well received. Both Pakistani born writers, Moshin Hamad and Kamila Shamsie, discuss the contentious politics of the Middle East, and the human stories located within. Sebastian Barry’s “Days Without End,” is a Costa Book Award winner.

This year’s Booker Prize has been praised for its strong diversity as well as the ration between men and women. It will be interesting to see who ends up on the shortlist. Though as it stands the most speculated writer to end up on the shortlist at this time is: Arundhati Roy, whose novel “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness,” has been called a masterful novel of composition and craft.

Thank-you for Reading Gentle Reader,
Take Care
And As Always
Stay Well Read

M. Mary 

Friday 21 July 2017

There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbour's Baby

Hello Gentle Reader

Lyudmila Petrushevskaya has always been a controversial writer, in her native land of Russia. Petrushevskaya, being denounced or criticized for being controversial, comes across as odd. She was never blatantly dissident or political active or opposing. Her work itself has been described as fairytale in nature, or preoccupied with domestic concerns. Nowhere, is there a trace of ulterior political motives. She never incited a riot, encouraged public discourse, political protests, or acts which would be revolutionary, though deemed anti-revolutionary, nor had Petrushevskaya ever conspire usurp the reigning social and political contexts and perspectives of the time. Her controversial status surrounds her work—which is depraved and disregards ideological notions and concerns—because her work was honest, to a fault. Lyudmila Petrushevskaya is a chronicler of the everyday epic. She chronicles the day to day drudgery, aimlessness, hopelessness, domestic insanity, with brute honesty, and an unflinching eye for the details. In the Soviet Union, this blatant depiction of the reality of the time, was deemed insufficient, counter-revolutionary, and offensive not only to the people (in which it represented and discussed), but also to the great Soviet Spirit and Communist ideals of the time. For that, Lyudmila Petrushevskaya was deemed unpublishable, because she “blackened,” reality. Where in reality, she described what she saw, what she heard, what she was told, and what she experienced; but this was unacceptable, describing what is, destroys the illusion of the socialist utopia of the time. You cannot deny the reality which oppresses, beats, and rules; but you cannot depict this reality in a codified format, or else the people would somehow loose the illusion of the progressive great work which was underway. How out of touch the authorities and government must have been then, because certainly the people we’re well aware the propagated utopia, depicted in the state propaganda did not exist. Yet, it still was not a subject which needed to be published and distributed; such contrary realities could upset the people, shift the perspective and most certainly cause political discord, which would spell the end for the Soviet Union. Times have changed. The socio-political climate has changed. The Soviet Union collapsed. It has not been an easy or pretty transition for many in Russia or the former Eastern Bloc; but the situations are improving, to success, like Estonia, who has one of the most fastest growing economics in the European Union, stable jobs, and low debt; not bad for a country which always found itself at the mercy of others. Yet, just because some have found success, does not mean all have. As they say though, all changes require the right conditions in order to truly take hold; much like plants in a green house.

Russia, currently resides in a limbo period, on the cusp of political change which promises and threatens to swing either way. Soviet nostalgia, according to recent reports, is on the rise. All those claims about, the power, the worthiness, the meaning, and the stability are all being touted as the great gifts the Soviet era had delivered, and all it costed was democratic and fundamental freedoms. This dangerous perspective, has once again taken aim at Lyudmila Petrushevskaya. The Public Council of the Russian Orthodox Church of Krasnoyarsk recently took aim at Petrushevskaya. The Public Council has recently accused Petrushevskaya of promoting recreational drug use among minors. The Council came to this conclusion after reading her story “The Trip,” about a story where a young man tries psychedelic drugs. This story was recently included in anthology directed towards young adults. Needless to say, the  Public Council of the Russian Orthodox Church of Krasnoyarsk, have found the story, unacceptable, and have since accused Lyudmila Petrushevskaya writing immoral and deranged fantasies, which will warp and create demented youth. Petrushevskaya has taken aim at the criticism, and found it offense and ill informed. She stated, the accusation—obviously—is in capable of making a clear distinction between ‘touching upon,’ and ‘promoting.’ By the same logic, she theorizes then, she has openly advocated and promoted: illegal abortions, prostitution (including underage), pedophilia, homosexuality and homosexual love, parental abuse and domestic violence, as well as incestuous relationships. All of these subjects, and more, have been topics in her work. Not because she is actively endorses or publicly supports, but rather, because they are and were the realities.

In similar fashion, Alice Munro in the beginning of her career suffered ludicrous criticism, because she had openly discussed sex and depicted sex in her work. Parents of the small Ontario community, wanted her books removed from the school library (and curriculum) because of the frank discussion, of what some thought was an indecent subject.  The parents reasoned by doing this they would protect their children. When Alice Munro was asked about the petition and the reasoning behind it, she was disappointed and perhaps even slightly amused, though she disagreed. She gently informed the interviewer, that by removing the books because of their honest discussion of sex, the parents were not saving their children from it; they were lying to them about the nature of sex, and there was no protecting them from their biology, and the eventual development of sexual yearnings and desires. This same situation is now presented to Lyudmila Petrushevskaya, she is honest and upfront in her descriptions of the realities, which she observers and overhears. She writes about the domestic trivialities and their tragedies, which may in fact encompass child abuse, pedophilia, incest, attempt of murder and so on. The subject matter can be cruel and uncomfortable, but ignoring it does not solve it, cure it, or get rid of it. All silence does is it condones it with muted consent. These discussions, these subjects become more dangerous by not discussing them. If readers, people, youth are not offered informed work or stories, about these subjects they will live a life of lies and naivety, will be put in danger, because of the negligence of either society or writers (who lack the freedom), to discuss these subjects with them, to show them the realities out there, which may be very different—even horrible—then the ones they are accustom to. The argument is not just to inform people of the multitude of realities beyond their doorstep, it is also teaches understanding and empathy towards those who have been subjected to such cruel treatment; perpetrated by familiar hands; endorsed by silence; cultivated by ignorance; the space provided by circumstance and fate. This is what makes writers like Lyudmila Petrushevskaya so important to the world, is their unflinching gaze to look into the witches brew, pull out the nastiest ingredients of the concoction, and write about it. She does this not for shock value, not for entertainment purposes, to present the realities, to give an informed depiction of the state of affairs of some, to write their unheard stories. In doing so, Petrushevskaya, informs the reader, but also offers solace and empathy, to those of similar situations.

“There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbour's Baby,” is described with the subtext: scary fairytales. A few of the stories start off with the old fairy tale beginning: “there once lived . . . “ or “there was once a . . .” et cetera; and just like fairytales, Lyudmila Petrushevskaya provides judgement to her characters and warning to the reader. “Revenge,” for example, details the story of a woman who is envious of her neighbour in their communal apartment, seeks to facilitate an accident, which will befall her neighbour’s child. She riddles the hall with nails, leaves bots of boiling water lying about, and cleans with sloppy vigor bleach—all in the attempt to maim and kill the child. The malice in which this is all presented is ordinary; it’s born of human weakness, now reduced to its more sophisticated element of envy, which has presented the woman with the means, the reason, and the desire to harm the child. The acts are presented in a cunning manner, that they would be dismissed as careless accidents, more than cruel crimes. How then is evidence provided, and justice to be delivered? Petrushevskaya is of moral character, to which she delivers moral justice, in correspondence with the crime.

In their introduction, Keith Gessen and Anna Summers, discuss the harvested stories collected in the volume. They confess that they picked each story to fit into the collection because of the mystical approach each one presents. Do not be quick to mistake this ‘mystical approach,’ for the run of the mill magical realism of today, which flies around like a cat on a broom. No, the stories collected here, are akin to ghost stories, fairytales, fables, nocturnes, and requiems for the dead. Lyudmila Petrushevskaya commented on this unique world by titling it: ‘Orchards of Unusual Possibilities.’ The title itself brings to mind an unusual orchard, riddled with twisted trees, autumnal branches, and dark fruit: indigo peaches, violet apples, black plums, ultramarine cherries, and ruby pomegranates; the kind of fruit which would feed the dead. In such an orchard ghosts are gardeners and fairies are harvesters, while the living who pass through are treated either with a malicious fate or lay the past to rest.

The stories collected in “There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbour's Baby,” vary in length. “Incident at Sokolniki,” is a mere two pages with some change, long; while, “The New Robinson Crusoe,” is sixteen and a half pages long. “Incident at Sokolniki,” is a brief story of duty, and literally placing the past to rest.  “The New Robinson Crusoe,” comes across as almost post-apocalyptic, as a family does its best to retain a minimal profile as they squat in a desolate village, but soon they are forced to flee further into the woods, into their backup shelter, as more and more refugees poor into their remote sanctuary. It’s an affecting anecdote about the coming and anarchic changes which had swept Russia as the Soviet Union collapsed, and uncertainty reigned supreme once again.

I personally have always found Lyudmila Petrushevskaya a bit coarse. She’s rough around the edges as she gets straight to the point. She does not mince her words, nor polish the prose. Her work is matter of fact and acerbic; but shattering, frightening and enlightening all the same. The stories in “There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbour's Baby,” are written with her granular prose, but instead of depicting the hell of the communal apartment, she turns her gaze to the deftly surreal. in the same prose, she shatters the notions of reality, presenting a frightening world of fate, human weakness, and moral judgements, which is delivered with corrosive scorn. If you can get past the shards of glass, the scattered nails, and the hidden needles out to prick; then Lyudmila Petrushevskaya delivers a collection of short stories which truly read like dark fairytales, which were composed and harvested from the “Orchards of Unusual Possibilities.”

It is easy to see why, Lyudmila Petrushevskaya, was once banned in the former Soviet Union; her work completely disregarded socialist realism, in favour of the true reality, and dark little fairytales which are cavity inducing, not by their sweetness, but by their bitter resentment they breath. Thankfully though the iron chokehold of the ideological pure censors thawed, and Lyudmila Petrushevskaya would be free to once again publish her work, and now become one of the most profile and respected writers at work in the Russian language. Her work brings to mind the painted-on glass animation Aleksandr Petrov, whose beautiful short films, can move from romanticism and lush realism, to the magical; or the cutout animation of Yuriy Norshteyn, with his autumnal forests, and misty woods.

Thank-you For Reading Gentle Reader
Take Care
And As Always
Stay Well Read

M. Mary

Thursday 13 July 2017


Hello Gentle Reader

The short story is a minority in popularity. This often makes the genre less sustainable in comparison to its more popular and lucrative relation. Consolation is given to the short story, when compared to poetry and the poem. At least—in the case of the short story—its head is above water; while the poem has been left to either drown or forcefully claw at the water’s surface, for a momentary breath of fresh air. All the while the novel is stranded on a deserted island. Despite the gross disparity between the three; the short story is not something to be pitied. It’s fussy and picky. It has standards and it has expectation; a rather rigid code of conduct, bylaws and codified set of policies. Its vetting process is vigorous, and for those who do not meet its righteous and self-indulgent measures, the door did not lock or change its place. So with every suitor who comes to propose some arrangement romantic or business oriented, the short story inquired (or interrogated) with ruthless set of ethical principles, and creative perspectives that most were turned away. So it remains passed over and forgotten. The short story is now a spinster who remains unapologetic; and even enjoys its self-righteous martyrdom.

Like a lunar eclipse every so often, there is renewed interest in the short story. In two-thousand and thirteen, after Alice Munro became a Nobel Laureate for being a: “contemporary master of the short story,”—the year was dubbed the year of the short story. For the briefest of moments, there was the revitalization and renewed interest in the genre. Writers were releasing new collections, publishers were re-publishing old collections, and many praised the format for its creative inducing restraints. After the revelry and celebrations had died down, the short story was safe once again to retreat to the attic; where in neglect it spun, knitted, crocheted and weaved without interruption. After all, the ivory tower is already occupied by poetry, and it’s long overdue for renovations.

There has always been (personal) hesitation with regards to Yoko Ogawa. Japanese literature sits beneath the overcast shadow of Haruki Murakami and his international success. Murakami has surpassed Nobel Laureate Yasunari Kawabata, Yukio Mishima, Kobo Abe, Jun'ichirō Tanizakiand even contemporary and Nobel Laureate Kenzaburo Oe, in popularity and success in the west. Haruki Murakami is different though from his literary forbears. Murakami is greatly influenced by western literature; specifically speaking European and American literature; with a certain enjoyment of crime literature. His work has completely shrugged off Japanese identity. His characters eat spaghetti, or instant ramen noodles; his themes revolve around urban existentialism, and cheap philosophy, all wrapped up in surreal plots, landscapes and stories. A dear friend once said that reading Murakami was like a acid trip, only to wake up the next day with a sense of enlightened change, but without able to grasp the change or manifest the enlightened thoughts.

Since Murakami’s popularity has grown there has been an increased criticism towards the writer. Many applaud and lobby that Haruki Murakami deserves the Nobel Prize for Literature. Others disagree with the reasoning’s behind Murakami being nominated and speculated as a contender for the prize; they state (and I agree) he’s a pop novelist who offers cheap philosophical discussions, with a great deal of sex, urban existentialism, wrapped in a magical realist setting; and has not shown any maturation from these earlier themes. Others are more kind and realistic towards he writer, confessing that they enjoy his work, but admitting he does not compare to previous laureates—Japanese or not.

My contestation with Murakami has always been the fact he is paraded as some high literary master, when in reality his work often appears to be a slightly altered version of previous work: the same surreal scenarios, the blend of reality and fantasy, the youthful dissatisfaction, meaningless sex, disappearing women; and so on and so forth. Credit is owed though for the fact that he is an easy read and even enjoyable; but this does not equate high literature. Though he offers moments where he showcases his talents, they are not as often nor as brilliant as they once were. My greatest annoyance stems from the fact: that everything to do with Japanese literature today is always under Murakami’s shadow. There is always the mention of Murakami’s influence on some writer or on some novel; and sadly this appears true. Whenever some lower or outsider of societal norms, has a conversation or thought about economic disparity, or the lack of ability to find deeper connections within an urban context, there is Murakami’s cat slinking away. This often leads me to look at contemporary Japanese literature with an attitude of: why bother? If everything is touched by Haruki Murakami, and I’ve already feel like I have had my fill of him, why should I read anything else if it has elements of him?

With that in mind, Yoko Ogawa, was always treated with suspicion and trepidation. Her novel “The Housekeeper and the Professor,” was marketed with the hallmark sentimentality and the air light prose of Banana Yoshimoto. Needless to say I glanced over the novel with great skepticism and it was settled: I had no interest or desire to read it; despite many praising the novel as a grand example of understating prose, quiet domestic drama, and the unique lives which are often overlooked by many, and who could the people, who ride the bus alongside us or may even live next door. Yet every time I looked down at the novel, it reminded of something written, with the sole goal of soliciting the readership of house wives or young women, with romantic’s dreams and notions. Not really my cup of tea. Then when Yoko Ogawa had more works translated into English, and I began to research her more, the shadow of Murakami always creeped about the peripheral. She was praised for her use of understated prose, her characters being slightly adrift or common place people, while the fantastic and the macabre was hidden in every crack. I remained unconvinced of Yoko Ogawa’s merits (if there were any).

Every year when it is time to begin Nobel Speculations for the year, I am always on the hunt for an alternative to Haruki Murakami; a writer who has been passed over because they are not actively participating in Murakami’s universe or showing signs of his influence. This has often proposed to be more of a challenge, of the most impossible nature, as no alternative seems to present themselves. Yet, one writer named continuously floated by in mention, though only in mention, and never with elucidation: a certain Yoko Ogawa. Once again I would return to research the author and could find little about her biography; other then she has a degree in English literature, married, worked as a medial secretary before becoming a writer, and since 1988 has been a full time professional writer. Then there were the comparisons between herself and Murakami, and there were very few articles presented to argue against the Murakami comparisons. As I had done before I passed Yoko Ogawa over, with hesitation and trepidation; but more out of concern with a lack of information with regards to the writer or her work, styles and themes. The most information I could find about Yoko Ogawa, came from French language blogs. It appears in France; Yoko Ogawa is revered and quite popular. To my knowledge her work is in abundant translation into the French language, by the French translator Rose-Marie Makino-Fayolle. It is thanks in large part to these French language readers, bloggers, and websites, which encouraged me to put aside my suspicions of Yoko Ogawa. Now I have taken the chance on Yoko Ogawa, and my thoughts remain: ambivalent at worst; while at best they are warm and inviting.

“Revenge,” seemed to be the best place to start with Yoko Ogawa. It eschewed the sunshine sentimentality of “The Housekeeper and the Professor,” but avoided the pitfalls of “Hotel Iris,” with its warped sexual scenario, and lacking of character development. “Revenge,” turned out to be quite a treat to read.

There are issues with “Revenge,” though—and it’s more about how the book was marketed, more than anything. “Revenge,” is marketed with the subtext of: “Eleven Dark Tales.” The cover is designed to look like skin or leather being sliced into it, to create the title; and the praise specifically pointed out comes from Joe Hill—who if you did not know is an author of horror fiction, stories and novels, as well as comic books, and is the son of Stephen King. It were to appear that the publisher was attempting to market Yoko Ogawa’s revenge as a collection of gory or horror filled stories, which recount and describe the depraved concepts of death and revenge being arbitrarily enforced upon others. For those expecting gore, blood, guts, graphic murders, and cold calculated ideas of revenge, this book would have been a rather disappointing read. While others who casually glanced at the book and the praise, would have been turned away, because of the sense it would be riddled with cheap and bloody tropes of slasher horror. What Yoko Ogawa accomplishes in this collection of short stories, is not what it has been marketed as. Even the title: “Revenge,” betrays the actual unique presentation the short story collection wishes to present. In fact the original Japanese title is: “Kamoku na shigai, Midara na tomurai,” which is roughly translated into English as: “Reticent Corpse, Improper Mourning,” (or “Dirty Mourning,”). The attempt at a more literal translation certainly sounds a lot more unique or even poetic then the English edition which overly simplifies and misses the mark.

It has been mentioned that Yoko Ogawa has more connection to the traditional Japanese ghost story or macabre story, then most contemporary Japanese writers; and “Revenge,” certainly cements this assertion. Its populated with odd and strange elements, rotting food, unique and unfortunate medical conditions, a few murders, depleted and apocalyptic landscapes; food in particular plays a strange role. Be it a post office filled with boxes or mountains of kiwis, or strawberry shortcake which is observed to slowly rot, in the memory of a deceased child; or an accident on the highway and spilled tomatoes all over, to carrots which are shaped like hands.

Ogawa’s stories begin innocently enough, depicting normal and mundane scenes; such as the first short story: “Afternoon at the Bakery,” where she describes a perfect Sunday, populated with families and tourists. The narrator of the story steps into a bakery, where she plans on purchasing a Strawberry Shortcake for her son. It is here the story makes its adjustment. Yet it’s not shocking or out of place. Rather it is described with understated and matter of fact prose. The narrator’s son is dead; and she is purchasing the cake to commemorate his immortal age of six, on this fine Sunday. The narrator is not wallowing in grief or hysterical with sadness—rather she is completely detached for the most part, looking at her new childless life and situation without emotional attachment; which in part makes these stories eerie (but thankfully avoids exaggerated emotions, to create forced sincerity and melodramatic pyrotechnics). What is uniquely odd is how the narrator watches a cake spoil and fall into inedible ruin:

“First, the cream turned brown and separated from the fat, staining the cellophane wrapper. The strawberries dried out, wrinkling up like the heads of deformed babies. The sponge cake hardened and crumbled, and finally a layer of mold appeared.”

The story continues the procession as the narrator waits in the bakery to place an order for her cake; and recounts her now dissolved marriage, her son’s death, and her memories of him; though she fixates solely on his death, how he was found in a refrigerator in a field, curled up into himself where he died of asphyxiation. Death in this case is: the end all be all.

In “Fruit Juice,” we encounter a young man (or student) studying in the library, when he is approached by a female student who is shy and cautious. She hesitantly speaks to him and proposes or rather asks, if he would like to join her for lunch. He reflects on her an individual and the lack of contact he has had with her. He finds her someone who is not intentionally alienated or ignore, but rather someone who would rather live off in the peripheral edges of school society, dutiful and studious but easily overlooked, and someone who works hard to retain that concealed identity.  It is in this story we discover the abandoned post office and the mountains and boxes of kiwis, and how the girl consumes the kiwis in an attempt to consul herself, with the inevitable death of her mother, looming on the horizon. And it is here, we are offered an odd moment to ponder: as we reach the end of the short story, we realize this young woman went on to become a baker; could she be the same way in the previous story who was discovered weeping, as she was on the phone?

As “Revenge,” continues, there is a continual cascading effect of déjà vu, with inclinations that scenarios, themes, characters, are re-occurring with their own personal and ethereal touches in later stories. “Revenge,” is not simply a short story collection, it is greatly interconnected within itself. The curator of “The Museum of Torture,” is a drifting dandy of an uncle to a young boy who once looked forward to his visits; though his uncle had a precise and perverse talent for allowing things to crumble and fall apart the moment he got involved or touched anything—and perhaps even enjoys watching everything fall apart or flee from his presence. Even his final and heartwarming gift, a beautiful fur coat which protects the nephew from the cold winter’s night, also falls apart as he is left deserted in the snow covered night. This same coat was once a pet Bengal tiger, belonging to twin eccentric heiresses, who were obsessed with torture.

Yoko Ogawa did not just write a short story collection, where each short story is a standalone glimpse into a life. Instead she created a short story cycle, salt and peppered with reoccurring images (food is a big one), themes, and characters: such as the uncle, or the step-mother authoress; or even characters reading short stories which have been read prior, but are now proclaimed as property of a character; in doing this, Yoko Ogawa comments on her own authorial voice, when a character reads: “Afternoon at the Bakery,”:

“The prose was unremarkable, as were the plot and characters, but there was an icy current running under her words, and I found myself wanting to plunge in again and again.”

It was a landscape from the last story: “Poison Plants,” which sticks out with me the most. When the elderly narrator goes for a walk and gets lost, she discovers a field of abandoned refrigerators. Ogawa is not a landscape writer, and merely depicted the scene at face value, in which she states it’s a field of abandoned refrigerators—but in my mind, I could imagine the field in a summer night twilight, with the pastel colours of a setting sun and the haze. The field itself forgotten and depleted, overgrown with weeds and grass. The refrigerators in varying stages of rust and decay; while off in the distance there is the drone and hushed calls of cars zooming and zipping down a highway. It is in this story, the narrator discovers herself curled up in the refrigerator: dead.

“Revenge,” was marketed with distasteful inaccuracy. It’s not riddled with gore and blood and guts. It’s not a novel of horrors, reminiscent of cheap horror films; it’s quite the opposite. “Revenge,” is a grotesque and macabre book, but its riddled with the gentle sting of melancholy, loneliness, and times passage. The characters shift from story to story; their cameos often made just by mentioning them; be it by a detective working on a case, or a page over a public address system, or by making a bold appearance in a story in the flesh, but leaving shortly after. The worlds of the characters are not private, they are not solitary or secluded, rather: they are connected and attached by the most unfortunate circumstances and private horrors, in which they share each other’s shock grief and even guilt.

Yoko Ogawa’s prose is impassive, to the point its lack luster, and is very plain. There is no lyrical language, or large space dedicated to landscape depictions. This works to her advantage, but at the same time it is disappointing. The impassive language, however, does allow Yoko Ogawa to avoid the pitfalls of forced emotions and melodramatic situations and scenarios. Nothing is more crude then false sentiment and exaggerated and excessive emotional language. Still the language did not have to be bleached, boiled, and starched to the point it lack any creative or linguistic flair, it came as plain as porridge. It was nice to see the menace of the stories did not take centre stage in action; rather it was left on the sidelines and only made mundane appearances at best; such as a heart which has grown outside of the body, rather than in its designated cavity; or a tongue which slips outside of a lab coat pocket is only marked with impartiality, and mundane observation. There is no hysterics. This allows for the menace and the macabre to overshadow the work in sensation rather than in actual presence. That Sunday afternoon may have been sunny without a cloud in the sky, but as the story progressed, shadows appear and lurk, out of every corner.

I found the language as already pointed out plain, though this did work towards Yoko Ogawa’s advantage for the most part. I am still suspicious of any influence Haruki Murakami has over Ogawa, as she herself has admitted it would be impossible to say that Murakami has had no influence over her. Despite this though she is not Murakami nor is she Banana Yoshimoto. Yoko Ogawa is something different and unique; though it would be difficult to grasp any real substantial understanding of her body of work simply by this short story collection; and I have no interest in reading “The Housekeeper and the Professor.” She is remarkably popular in France, as well as her native Japan; and even Kenzaburo Oe has praised her for her work in which she can clearly depict the subtle workings of human psychology. Praise only goes so far, and there is still a lot of suspicion I hold towards Ogawa; but she does seem to be an interesting writer. Though I do think English language publishers have tried to market her off as some female Murakami or a more macabre Banana Yoshimoto, where in fact, Yoko Ogawa is a writer of her own merits and themes. It’s just a shame there is a complete under representation of them in the English language; as the publishers are more concerned and interested to find a new Murakami like author to push onto the scene with lucrative success.

Thank-you For Reading Gentle Reader
Take Care
And As Always
Stay Well Read

M. Mary

Thursday 6 July 2017

Last Vanities

Hello Gentle Reader

The mundane is riddled with suppressed urges, and is governed by oppression. Everything is directed by the clocks hands; on the springs of schedules and itineraries.  There is work in the week, which takes up eight hours of the day—not including of course morning rituals and commutes. The evening is for dinner and quiet relaxation—of course this is if you are lucky. You may need to work late at the office. The project deadline is closing fast, and in the corporate world there is no time for extensions, and forgiveness is in short supply. Of course there is always the dreaded shift work, rotating from day to evening. Days off present no rest for the wicked, there is work that needs to be done around the house. First off the place needs to be cleaned. When was the last time it received the required love and care? Then there is laundry which needs to be done. While the clothes are in the wash, might as well get the yard work started or complete.

Yard work itself always appears rather violent; with all that mowing, chopping, pruning and clipping involved. There’s the wife kneeling in the dirt and freshly mowed grass. Armed with a trowel she opens a surface wound in the dirt. She plops in a petunia, and thinks of her husband. He’s off gallivanting on one of his business trips. Upon his return he flops on the bed. He’s too tired to talk that evening. Besides it was just another boring conference. The kind where its business discussions in the day, while in the evening ties are loosened up and drinks abound. Last time though, she found a suspicious stain on his clothing. Maybe it was her imagination, but it looked like faded lipstick. Ties loosened up in the evening, which always moves down to the belt buckle and the zipper of his pants. Before long he smells of shame and cheap perfume. A shower is required immediately after the deed; and no, this other woman was not invited. She knew were the door was she could leave. The shower is not a sign of remorseful grief. Rather it was the intention to destroy evidence; to wash away her perfume, her bought kisses and cheap compliments. They all do it, would be his excuse and defense. While he watches the evidence pour into the drain, he knows in the rooms next door another man is finishing up. By morning, zippers are zipped; belts are buckled; and ties are tight. She pats the earth back into place, while the taxi arrives. He gets out with his suitcase and waves. She pulls the petunia out for the prick. All that remains is a bundle of roots and dirt, and a crumpled flower.  

Fleur Jaeggy’s short stories in “Last Vanities,” trace the topography of the otherwise normal and mundane relationships of her characters. The landscapes may differ and change from the concrete garden of the impoverished, to the ashen ruins of the well off, to the charitable homes of a good Samaritan, to an apartment complex  for the elderly—they are all governed by the same mundane practices and routines of daily life. Under her binocular perspective, Fleur Jaeggy spots the subtle cracks and forming chasms in their relationships. From those hairline imperfections and inconsistencies of daily routine, dark fantasies, suppressed thoughts, and muted desires threaten, and do shatter the comforting worlds of her characters apart. Leaving the burned down remains to smolder, and the blood on the pavement to dry while the hammer is busy being washed in the sink. Not out of guilt, but—much like the husband—is a cold analytical impulse to remove evidence, and as much as possible, remove association from the item and the crime, as well as the victim.

Fleur Jaeggy is a Swiss-born Italian language writer. She currently resides in Italy, but her short stories in “Last Vanities,” are salt and peppered with German phrases, reflecting Switzerland. Fleur Jaeggy is one of those writers whose nation belongs to language more than geographical location. Unlike Patricia Highsmith, who had uprooted herself from the United States of America and took up residence in Europe (mainly France, and later in life the Italian speaking region of Switzerland) she always identified as a citizen of the United States of America; despite Europe being her home for her adult life, as well as being the main stage where she found her success; unlike the United States, which more often than not, rejected Highsmith and her novels. Now it only turns out, she was certainly farther ahead of her time. Beyond these personal superficial details, there is no real connection between Fleur Jaeggy and Patricia Highsmith. They are worlds apart as writes and as individuals; but with Jaeggy’s stories I often glimpsed a little bit of Highsmith in how there is the probing the mundane realities and fantasies of destruction which haunt the backs of our minds. The difference being Jaeggy does it with sparse and poetic prose; while Highsmith was abrasive and blunt about her depiction of the moral decomposition and decay of the everyday person.

Jaeggy’s friends and acquaintances range from Ingeborg Bachmann, Thomas Bernhard to Joseph Brodsky. She is married to Roberto Calasso a prominent Italian intellectual, publisher, and writer. With friends as large and well known as these it would be easy to overlook the “piccolo leone,” or little lion, as Ingeborg Bachmann had often called her. Yet, when one discovers Jaeggy’s work they are immediately impressed and secretive of their new found treasure. Jaeggy is most famous for her novel “Sweet Days of Discipline.” The novel traces with precise observations the life of a girl at the age of fourteen at a boarding school, and her new found obsession with the new perfect girl. Despite the lesbian like tone which I had just outlined, the novel lacks the homosexual experimentation. Rather it traces the idea of obsession and delusions incubated in the world of the boarding school; as well as nostalgia of childhood, and the rupture of childhood burning into adulthood. Those who read the novel praised it, enjoyed it, and the Literary Times Supplement even named it one of the most notable books of the year.

“Last Vanities,” eschews and tosses nostalgia to the wind. It boils the themes of obsession and delusion down to their ethereal elements and essences, and spices them up with themes of malice, cruelty, vindication; as well as cruel and violent acts, wrapped in the uncomfortable cellophane guffaw of irony. The seven short stories are very short, but in their brief and lyrical passages, Jaeggy take the steel precision of a fountain pen nib, and etches out the unfortunate fates of her characters and annunciates their secret thoughts before turning them into cruel acts which are depraved of humanity. In the opening story “No Destiny,” we encounter Marie Ann, aggressively pruning the hedges of her concrete garden, in her depilated little home. The opening line sets the tone immediately:

“Then she hated her.”

This line would later reflect Marie Ann’s feelings towards her infant daughter. Marie Ann has no sense of maternal love or instinct to spare with regards to her daughter. The infinite has been born without a choice, and is obviously a mistake. Now it is sentenced to life with a mother who despises it and will most likely suffer disadvantages and poverty because of her mother and absent father; and both parents lacking any foresight into the consequences they unleashed on another human being they created. Yet, Marie Ann has the opportunity to relieve herself of her infant burden. A wealthy couple would love to share their wealth and their love to the child, as their own was tragically removed from the world. Selfishness comes in many forms, and Marie Ann is a selfish character. She wishes relieve herself of her child, but at the same time: why should it have a better life then herself?

The best short story of this collection is the titular story: “Last Vanities,” of the married couple living in their senior’s apartment complex, enjoying their retirement and reflecting on their years of marriage as their golden anniversary approaches. It is in this story that we learn as readers in the nest of love their does lie the sweet thought and dream of mourning ones spouse; that out of the two of you: one of you will die first. Rather than being mortified by this prospect, the elderly couple rejoices in this thought of burying the other. The ceremonious thought of caretaking of someone you loved deeply and dearly through their life, now reaches its final stages in some grey hospital room, beneath fluorescent lights, IV’s in the arms, medication being brought in like a seven course meal, and nurses and orderly’s always enacting the changing of guard, and acting as medical servants as need be. Then the time comes and the chosen spouse slips off into the void. Afterwards began the process of grief and mourning. At this point though it’s been thought about, planned through, rehearsed and even reveled in. Church bells ring with grief; while deep down you rejoice. All relationships sour. All apples have worms. All nests begin to disintegrate. Even if time plates the anniversary with gold—it too will tarnish and fade. Never underestimate apathy and vindication; and as they say: as you get older, you careless and you obtain freedom; and freedom means decisions and choices, however ghoulish and ghastly they are.

Fleur Jaeggy’s sentences are whipped off with whiplash intensity, where they spit and hiss venomous emotional intensity, showcasing the anger, vitriol and malice which has been suppressed in her characters’ lives. With stainless steel precision they glitter and flash the dangerous flash of a knife, as it is slowly slipped between the ribs and left to heal over. Her prose is poetic at one point and frank the next. She details where destiny passed each individual by, and depicts their current state with objective fact, deprived of emotional empathy and attachment. It’s not lighthearted reading; but its excellently crafted. Fleur Jaeggy has a morbid interest in the downtrodden, unfortunate and poor; people who have been forsaken by society and destiny; and are now placed in her short story collection like figurines in a curio cabinet, for display of their abnormalities and their sad, pathetic circumstances and lives; which they their spleen on one another in an attempt to justify and mitigate their own failings both in life, spirit, soul and shadow.

Thank-you For Reading Gentle Reader
Take Care
And As Always
Stay Well Read

M. Mary