August 12, 2012
I recently was lucky enough to spend two weeks at the wonderful Varuna writers’ centre, in Katoomba in the Blue Mountains.
I had heard stories about the fabled Varuna residencies from other writers for many years; my own earliest connection with Varuna, though, came about when its former director, Peter Bishop, provided me with helpful and at times acerbic critiques of drafts of my first (unpublished) novel, and its successor, Ghostlines. Not until 2012 did I finally get the chance to visit for a two-week residency.
Varuna was originally owned by the Australian writer Eleanor Dark and her husband Eric.
Five writers generally stay in the house at a time. Each is given a bedroom and a studio. I was granted Eleanor’s own studio (built in 1938) for the fortnight.
It was here that Eleanor wrote some of her novels and it’s a beautifully set up working space. The reference books include Historical Records of Australia, a 1950s Collins Dictionary, and The Children’s Encyclopedia edited by Arthur Mee, none of which were relevant to my project but were fun to browse. The cabinet had many small drawers in which former residents of the studio have left one or two pages of their work.
The studio also contained what I assume was Eleanor’s Remington typewriter. It doesn’t work very well any more, but working on the principle that famous writers’ belongings carry some kind of mystical literary residue, I had a go nonetheless.
On the walls there are various photos of Eleanor and friends, and a letter to Eleanor from Manning Clark expressing his admiration for her work.
When not writing you can gaze, as though in thought, out of the studio window. We are supposed to keep reasonably quiet during the day but this doesn’t apply to the hooligan magpies that carry on raucously in the trees around the studio. At times the wind up here is so loud it sounds like the sea. The weather alternated between bright, crisp, clear, cold days and misty, wet days of low cloud - good weather for ghost stories.
Superb meals, cooked by the legendary Sheila (who doesn’t like to be photographed) are served every evening in the dining room-cum-library.
It’s not far from Varuna to Echo Point, a well-known beauty spot from which there is a a vantage, or ‘coign of vantage’ Eleanor’s dictionary tells me, of many miles of rolling headlands and escarpments which are, indeed, bluish in the distance.
It’s only about ten or 15 minutes walk from Varuna to Katoomba, where you can amuse yourself in coffee shops and about 200 curio and antiques shops if that is your thing.
While at Varuna I succeeded largely in closing out the outside world; in thinking about my future as a writer; in reading Georges Perec’s Life a User’s Manual ; in having many entertaining conversations around the fire with my fellow writers in residence. And did I get much work done? Actually, yes. I succeeded in reworking my current manuscript and adding new material, getting it to the point where it is almost ready for submission. The future of the book is uncertain, but the time was incredibly worthwhile as an opportunity to focus on the task of completing the manuscript.
So if you are a writer, get thee to Varuna. You won’t regret it.
September 24, 2011
Swedish novelist Henning Mankell recently called a halt to his mega-bestselling Inspector Wallander series with the novel The Troubled Man. According to an interview that Mankell gave to the BBC’s World Book Club, Wallander is now aged over 60 and is brooding over his life. “I let Wallander look backwards to see ‘What did I do with my life?’, and for him it is a bit difficult. But then he remembers certain things that had an enormous impact on him, and one of them is what I spoke about in the first novel.” That first novel was Faceless Killers, published in 1991.
It seems to make sense that Wallender, like his creator, should have aged as the series progresses – novels are supposed to be about characters who develop, and readers who follow the whole series have the pleasure of seeing the inspector gradually mature as the result of his experiences. But it’s not always the case that popular fictional characters get older from book to book. Agatha Christie’s detective Hercule Poirot, for example, first appeared in 1926 in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, in which he was described as a retired police detective. The final Poirot novel that Christie wrote was Elephants Can Remember, published in 1972. If Poirot had aged during the intervening five decades, he would presumably have been over 100 years old by this time. In fact he seems to get no older from one book to the next.
The same applied to my favourite fictional character when I was a boy – Richmal Crompton’s Just William. William is eleven years old in the first book, set in the 1920s, with a house full of servants. He is still eleven all the way through the 30s, the Second World War, the 50s, becomes interested in the space program in the 60s, and even bumps into members of a pop group in the 1970s, still aged eleven.
Characters who remain the same age throughout their adventures are not only in defiance of the laws of time and space, they also flout the convention that fictional characters are supposed to develop and learn from their experiences. William never becomes any more cautious or well behaved after 50 years of naughtiness, and of course readers would not want him to.
J.K. Rowling, on the other hand, allowed Harry Potter to grow up from the age of the age of 11 in the first book to 17 in the last, ageing by one year every book (he jumps forward to the age of 30 in the final section). The fact that Harry grows up during the series, learning and developing new qualities along the way, is part of the appeal of the series and an essential part of its narrative drive, as without the powers he has developed Harry would be unable to take part in the final battle with Voldemort.
The decision about whether to allow a recurring character to grow older or not is a tricky one for authors. If the character stays the same, the readers are required to suspend their disbelief as a character maintains a Dorian Gray-like imperviousness to time, and any references to real historical events are fraught with danger, as they are almost certain to expose chronological inconsistencies.
On the other hand, if the character does get older, the writer has to decide how quickly they will age. Will the character age roughly in accordance with real time, as Wallander has done? If your second book is published ten years after the first and has the same protagonist, must the character be ten years older? In that case, the writer only has a certain window in which the books can be written – if Mankell decides to write more Wallander in ten years’ time, the inspector will have to be 70 years old, or the novel will have to be set in the past, or Mankell will have to change the rules.
This is a real dilemma for writers. If your first novel contained references to actual historical events and specific years, and then a number of years later you are writing another novel featuring the same character, you have to decide how consistent you are going to be. If you’d prefer to avoid constantly cross-checking from book to book, perhaps it’s better to include as few time- specific events as possible. But that means expunging references to events in the real world, which makes for a loss of realism.
It’s not just a problem of continuity and story logic. It’s tempting to take the Christie- Crompton route of allowing characters to ignore the passing of time. However, it’s much richer from a narrative point of view to have characters like Wallander who grow wiser and develop as a result of their adventures. If they are wiser, then presumably they are also older, ergo …
If you’ve given your character an age and named a year in the first book, then later books can be problematic. Perhaps the most pragmatic course is to shut up about your character’s age, avoid any time-specific markers, and hope no one is paying attention too closely to these matters.
February 14, 2011
I wouldn’t usually seek out a book about international finance – not, that is, unless it was highly entertaining, beautifully written, and contained a cast of eccentric characters worthy of a picaresque novel. Which is another way of saying, unless the author was Michael Lewis.
Lewis has written eleven non-fiction books covering subjects from professional sport to the tech industry of Silicon Valley. His first interest, though, was the financial world. His debut, Liar’s Poker, described his experiences as a young, ignorant trader at Salomon Brothers investment bank in the 1980s. He says this of his brief career in the financial world: “The willingness of a Wall Street investment bank to pay me hundreds of thousands of dollars to dispense investment advice to grown-ups remains a mystery to me to this day … Believe me when I tell you that I hadn’t the first clue.” He got out of the bank, figuring that an industry that employed so many clueless, reckless people was obviously unsustainable and that soon there would be a Great Reckoning.
Instead, the financial system rocketed merrily on to newer and more ridiculous heights, and nothing seemed to make any difference – the bonuses, the scandals, the rogue traders. By the mid-2000s, Wall Street was booming like never before and young men even more ignorant than Lewis were making sums that made the excesses of the 1980s look quaint. And then came the sub-prime mortgage crisis.
The crisis of 2008 was astounding in its magnitude – hundreds of billions of dollars lost, major merchant banks either collapsing completely or being bailed out by governments and taxpayers, whole countries (Iceland, Ireland) going bankrupt. The consequences of the collapse are certain to last for years – especially for the millions of people far from Wall Street who lost their homes and discovered themselves locked into a lifetime of unpayable debt.
It was the result of predictable folly. Economists can argue about the degree to which different factors contributed, but what everyone agrees on is that for several years unsustainable home loans were made by shonky financial organisations to people who couldn’t repay them – such as a Mexican immigrant strawberry picker, on a salary of $14,000, speaking no English, who was loaned every cent of $724,000 to buy a house. These loans were then packaged up into bonds, which were sold on by Wall Street banks to other investors in forms so complex it was near-impossible to understand just what they were. The fundamental problem was that, at bottom, very few of the low-income people who had been sold the loans – euphemistically known as ‘sub-prime’ – were capable of paying them back, which meant that the bonds were ultimately valueless. This didn’t prevent them from becoming the basis of a multi-billion dollar industry that for a short time made bond traders obscenely rich.
This story is pretty well known by now, which doesn’t make it any less shocking. Lewis’s approach is to focus on a very small number of people who saw the crash coming – a cast of eccentrics who realised, several years before everyone else, that the boom in sub-prime mortgage loans was unsustainable. Lewis has a good novelist’s ability to sketch a memorable character in a few lines: of one of his protagonists, Steve Eisman, he writes “He dressed as if someone had gone to great trouble to buy him nice new clothes but had not told told him exactly how they should be worn.” These characters proceeded to bet against the sub-prime market by buying ‘default swaps’, an act known as ‘shorting’. (Lewis writes clearly about complex transactions, but his book does require you to pick up a bit of the jargon). Gradually it dawned on them that they were betting not just against a few bonds, but against the entire financial system itself.
Steve Eisman has “a special talent for making noise and breaking with consensus opinion.” According to Lewis, Eisman is famous for rudeness and independence of thought: faced with a Japanese CEO’s financial statements, he tears the paper up and tells the interpreter: “This is toilet paper. Translate that.” Eisman starts out a Republican, but comes to realise that the entire financial system has been set up to, in his words, “Fuck the poor.” A comics afficionado who identifies himself with Spiderman, Eisman forms the view that someone needs to intervene to end what he considers a giant Ponzi scheme. He doesn’t expect the government to fix it, but hopes that the ratings agencies, Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s – who along with the banks are the villains of this tale – might do so. Instead, the agencies go on classifying the toxic bonds as triple-A , when to anyone who has done their research, they are clearly worthless.
One man who knows better is Michael Burry, an obsessive self-taught investor who has quit a career in medicine because he prefers reading financial prospectuses to dealing with people. Burry has Aspergers, which turns out to be an advantage as he applies his incredible concentration to reading the financial documentation around the toxic bonds. He masters the detail that everyone else ignores, sees before anyone that a crash is inevitable, and starts making massive bets on shorting the sub-prime market. Lewis writes: “It was one of the fringe benefits of living for so many years essentially alienated from the world around him: he could easily believe that he was right and the world was wrong.”
There is no shortage of scenes that bring home the full horror of the way the financial system works. At a conference of sub-prime dealers in Vegas, the dealers first go to a gun range to blaze away with Uzis at targets of Osama bin Laden as a zombie; attend a lecture at which the ‘moral leader’ of the sub-prime mortgage business – a Renoir-owning lunatic named John Devaney – rants about how the ratings agencies are whores and everyone knows the securities are worthless (which the audience politely ignores); then go out on the town to leer at strippers, some of whom turn out to have multiple home loans. “Usually when you do a trade you can find some smart people on the other side of it. In this case we couldn’t,” says Ben Hockett, a young guy from what Lewis engagingly calls a “garage band hedge fund”, Cornwell Capital, which like Eisman and Burry gets into the shorting game.
So why did all this happen? Greed, naturally, is at the bottom of it: the traders don’t care if the market collapses in a few years, because they are making so much money in the short term. The CEOs of the banks have no idea what their traders are doing. And the ratings agencies are too incompetent and timid to do what they are supposed to do and value the bonds correctly. Government, apparently, has no role whatsoever. Lewis writes that “[The guys from Cornwell Capital] had always assumed that there was some grown up in charge of the financial system … now they saw that there was not.” The result is what one of Lewis’s heroes, Jamie Mai, memorably describes as a “material global financial clusterfuck.”
By the end of the book the reader is crying out for some kind of justice to be done, but although a couple of banks collapse and a few people are led off in handcuffs (they beat the charges), no one really gets punished apart from the taxpayers who have to fork out to keep the banking system afloat. In September 2008, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson persuaded Congress to spend $700 billion on bailing out the banks’ subprime mortgage debts. Thus reprieved, the financiers kept their jobs and continue to enrich themselves. Since the collapse there have been noises about increasing regulation so that such things will never happen again, but this is no more to be believed than the tearful promises of a drunk to dry out. It is more than likely that in a few years’ time Lewis will have plenty of material for his next book.
Michael Lewis is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, and you can read an excerpt from The Big Short at the VF website.
November 10, 2010
October 7, 2010
David Mitchell announced himself in spectacular fashion in 1999 when he published his first novel Ghostwritten: a novel in nine parts that begins with an apocalyptic Japanese cult member launching an attack on the Tokyo underground and goes on to spin stories in locations from Mongolia to Petersburg, London and California. What was remarkable was not just the brilliance of the nine stories, but the narrative device he used to link them (I will not reveal it here) – a device that compels readers, having finished the book, to plunge back into it, hunting for the clues that enable them to piece the whole story together.
Mitchell backed up with number9dream, the story of a hapless young Japanese man searching for his mother who gets mixed up in computer hacking and Yakuza warfare. Then came Cloud Atlas (2003), a novel that plunges backwards and forwards in time, comprising six stories that are wildly diverse but ingeniously linked: a mid-20th century composer, a clone at some future date, a teenage boy in post-apocalypse Hawaii, an investigative journalist in 1970s California … Mitchell says he was inspired to write this novel by Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveller, a novel consisting entirely of first chapters: Mitchell enjoyed the novel but wanted to know how Calvino’s stories ended, so his take on the concept, Cloud Atlas, includes both the first and second half of all six stories, with the whole novel structured like a Russian doll.
By now keen Mitchell fans were spotting the connections between the books. The investigative journalist of Cloud Atlas, Luisa Rey, had appeared briefly in Ghostwritten; the Mongolian hitman of Ghostwritten, Subhataar, continued his deadly work in number9dream; the comic vanity publisher Tim Cavendish, a bit player in Ghostwritten, got a story of his own in Cloud Atlas. It was becoming clear that all Mitchell’s novels were part of one vast supra-novel, a fiendishly clever, interconnected body of work that presumably will continue to increase in complexity for as long as he writes.
Mitchell had developed a reputation as a gifted ventriloquist who could create any narrative voice, from 18th century sailor to 22nd century clone. So it was a surprise when he published Black Swan Green in 2006, a relatively straightforward (for Mitchell) novel about a shy, stammering teenager experiencing the difficulties of adolescence in England in the 1980s. Even in this novel – which differed from its predecessors in having only one narrator - Mitchell’s taste for intertextuality was evident: the teenage protagonist, Jason, meets an elderly lady, Madame Crommelynck, who tells him of her relationship with Robert Frobisher, the dissolute composer of Cloud Atlas. It should be added that this novel is marked by an emotional depth not always achieved by Mitchell’s previous novels, brilliant as they were.
Now we have Mitchell’s latest offering, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. In this novel, Mitchell has returned to a setting he clearly relishes, Japan. The first of the three sections is set in 1799 on Dejima, an artificial island created by the Japanese in Nagasaki Harbour to enable trade to take place with the Dutch, as no foreigners are allowed on Japanese soil. A naive and principled young clerk, Jacob de Zoet, arrives on Dejima hoping to build a career and make his fortune. He finds himself surrounded by corruption, cruelty, deception and political intrigue: the Dutch officials are all on the take, and obsessed with increasing the value of trade, while the Japanese society is paralysed by hierarchy and tradition. Mitchell dramatises the conflict between cultures brilliantly in the negotiations that take place in the Hall of Sixty Mats.
Moving between the two groups are the interpreters, one of whom is named Kobayashi (who shares the name of the death cult acolyte in Ghostwritten). De Zoet befriends a curmudgeonly doctor named Marinus, who epitomises Enlightenment values, and falls in love with Marinus’s only female student, a gifted midwife named Orito Aibagawa. He also crosses the path of a creepy abbot named Enomoto, who operates a shrine in the mountains and speaks mysteriously of souls and “affinity”.
De Zoet’s love for Aibagawa cannot be fulfilled as she is kidnapped by Enomoto and removed from Dejima. In the over-long second section of the book she is a prisoner in Enomoto’s shrine, where she joins a group of disfigured women that the Abbot is keeping as part of an obscure, fantastic cultish scheme. This section is reminiscent of the ‘Orison of Sonmi’ section of Cloud Atlas, which involves young female clones enslaved for a macabre project by a fast food company. Indeed, the theme of imprisonment and attempts to escape from it occurs frequently in Mitchell’s work. Aibagawa too tries to get away, assisted by a magical grey cat (enigmatic, knowing animals crop up a lot in Mitchell) but is unable to go through with it, knowing that her midwifery skills are needed by her fellow inmates. At the same time, another young man who is in love with Aibagawa, an interpreter (and friend of de Zoet) Uzaemon, sets out on a hare-brained attempt to rescue her, armed with a scroll written by a disaffected disciple who has revealed what is really going on at the shrine.
The third and best section concerns a British frigate, the Phoebus, that launches an attack on Dejima, by now under the command of De Zoet. This section is based on a historical event known as The Phaeton Incident. De Zoet discovers unexpected depths of courage as he and Marinus face down the gouty English captain, Penhaligon; he has another meeting with Aibagawa, whom he has continued to love all this time.
The novel embraces many of the elements that Mitchell has become famous for through his earlier novels. There is the sheer pleasure of reading a good story well told – ‘the heart craves love and the mind craves stories’ as Aibagawa puts it – though I do feel he spins out the shrine section at tedious length, and its denouement is a shade predictable.
He is fascinated by what happens when cultures collide, and the difficulties people have understanding each other across culture - whether in love affairs, through diplomacy, or in master-slave relationships. One of the Dutchmen’s slaves tries to work out what makes the white men tick:
For White men, to live is to own, or to try to own more, or to die trying to own more. Their appetites are astonishing! They own wardrobes, slaves, carriages, houses, warehouses and ships … They own this world, its jungles, its skies and its seas. Yet they complain that Dejima is a prison. They complain they are not free.
Most intriguingly, Mitchell circles constantly around metaphysical questions. As we already knew after Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas, he is interested in souls, the nature of which is explored again here:
‘Doctor, do you believe in the Soul’s existence?’
Marinus prepares, the clerk expects, an erudite and arcane reply. ‘Yes.’
‘Then where,’ Jacob indicates the pious, profane skeleton, ‘…is it?’
‘The soul is a verb,’ he impales a lit candle on a spike, ‘not a noun.’
The question is whether Mitchell refers to reincarnation, affinity of souls and the like simply as a handy narrative device, or whether he truly expects his readers to give credence to such concepts outside the world of fiction. In interviews he is cagey about the subject (I’ve linked to one below). ”The soul is a verb, not a noun” is a nice line, but what does it actually mean?
Another trait much in evidence in Jacob de Zoet is Mitchell’s delight in enumerating obscure bits of knowledge. He is a self-confessed nerd and loves spouting lists of instruments, nautical terms, and other lore he has acquired in his research:
The loblolly, a pock-scarred Londoner called Rafferty, stands, putting to one side the tray of tenaculums, ball-scoops and bone-rasps he is oiling. ‘Afternoon, sir: the Surgeon’s down on the orlop deck.’
And there is the sheer pleasure in language – its sound and its metaphorical possibilities. If you were to create a continuum of writers ranging from ‘plain’ to ‘ornate’, with Carver and Hemingway at one end, Mitchell would be off the scale at the other.
Night insects trill, tick, bore, ring; drill, prick, saw, sting.
A gibbous moon is grubby. Stars are bubbles, trapped in ice. The old pine is gnarled and malign.
The taste for baroque language, never more manifest than in this book, reaches a crescendo towards its close when he embarks on an extraordinary Dylanesque riff on Dejima:
Gulls fly through clouds of steam from laundries’ vats; over kites unthreading corpses of cats; over scholars glimpsing truth in fragile patterns; over bath house adulterers, heartbroken slatterns; fishwives dismembering lobsters and crabs; their husbands gutting mackerel on slabs …
And so on, for a page and a half. It’s an amazing performance, and more than just an audacious language game: if the point of rhyme is to make a connection between two things that are otherwise unrelated, then the point of Mitchell’s work is that everything is connected, across time, across cultures, across space. Perhaps this is part of what he means by the line that completes this section:
This world, he thinks, contains just one masterpiece, and that is itself.
Whether one is convinced by this theory or not, it is enormously enjoyable to accompany Mitchell as he explores it.
A podcast interview with David Mitchell on the BBC’s World Book Club (mainly about Cloud Atlas) can be heard here.
An interview with Mitchell about Jacob de Zoet is on Goodreads here.
October 5, 2010
Over the past few weeks I have been one of the judges of a novel writing competition for unpublished writers. During my reading, it became clear quite quickly that there are common mistakes that inexperienced writers tend to make. I have certainly made all of them myself. The following comments are directed at anyone who is writing a first novel, whether or not they are planning to enter a competition.
One caveat: as with any form of literary advice, it will be possible to think of examples of successful novels that break these rules. However I think new writers would generally be well advised to follow these suggestions more often than not.
1 Start with a strong scene. Judges, agents and editors have a lot of manuscripts to read and the ones that start feebly are highly likely to be cast aside after a few pages. If your manuscript begins with ten pages of throat-clearing it will be on the discard pile before the reader has got anywhere near your big scene on page 187. Start with something that grabs the reader – as Dickens does in chapter one of Great Expectations, in which Pip is menaced by the convict in the graveyard. A scene like that hooks the reader and makes them want to keep going. A powerful opening is also far more likely to appeal to potential buyers in a bookshop, if your book makes it that far.
2 Keep the plot moving. As Peter Temple said at the Melbourne Writers Festival recently: a novel is like a shark, it must keep moving forward or it dies. It’s disappointing how many manuscripts don’t have much forward momentum, or allow potentially interesting stories to waver and lose direction. Our most fundamental reason for reading a novel is our desire to be told a good story – which is why novels with mediocre writing but a compelling plot continue to sell in the truckloads despite their flaws.
3 Learn to cut. Ruthless cutting of your work is one of the clearest distinctions between someone who is serious about writing and someone who dabbles at it. Every scene, every dialogue has to have a purpose, and if you don’t know why it is there, it should be cut. Don’t waste time on long pointless conversations or wordy descriptions. Get rid of cliches. And end a scene at the right moment, as soon as it has done its job.
4 Don’t use the novel as a vehicle for your theories. Got strong views about global warming, Nazism, the evils of technology? Write an essay, or a blog post. The novel is not the place to expound your opinions, especially if you are going to illustrate them by means of a ridiculously improbable plot and cardboard characters. A novel is for telling a good story with strong characters. Of course, novelists have opinions, but rather than telling the readers what to think, leave room for them to interpret the action for themselves.
5 Avoid first person disease. My early attempts to write a novel suffered this complaint to an embarrassing degree and now I know I was not alone. First person narration can be a powerful tool, but not when it involves telling the reader every stray thought that passes through the narrator’s head, from dreams to memories to fantasies to opinions on the state of the world. This is simply self-indulgent and maddening. If you are writing in the first person, get your narrator to stick to the story.
6 Avoid cliched characters and situations. For example, not every young adult novel has to feature a lonely, orphaned teenager with supernatural powers. I know that this has been a standard narrative trope from King Arthur to Harry Potter, but too many writers seem to reach for it as a lazy shorthand way of setting things up. It may seem a big call, but try to find something new – come up with a character and a way of telling the story that has never been done before, as Mark Haddon did with The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, in which the narrator is an autistic boy. Through the eyes of that narrator, even the simplest and most everyday events are seen as if for the first time, and the challenges he faces – like the impossibility of reading human facial expressions - are things that most readers have never considered before.
When Nicolai Lilin was five, he was given his first knife. At twelve he was charged with attempted murder. After that, things went downhill. In his teens, he did a stretch in an appalling juvenile prison where bashings and rape were routine; on release, he took part in crimes of increasing violence, culminating in multiple murder.
Lilin was born in 1980 into the ‘Urkas’ – the name given to the Siberian criminal class. According to Lilin, some time in the Stalinist era, when the government was moving troublesome populations around the Soviet Union in order to neutralise potentially dangerous nationalist ethnic movements, a group of Siberian Urkas had been forcibly moved to Transnistria, a region between Moldova and the Ukraine. In Transnistria, the Urkas maintained their culture through traditions, rituals and a strictly hierarchical society. Lilin maintains that, far from being common criminals, they observed a strict moral code that values honour, loyalty and humility.
I’m sceptical about this claim after reading Lilin’s ultra-violent memoir, Siberian Education. Lilin – who now lives in Italy, where this book was originally published – claims to have renounced violence. But he speaks with nostalgia about the ‘education’ he received from his community in Transnistria.
Lilin wants us to see the Urkas as political Robin Hoods, fighting against an unjust system. Clearly the Siberians were treated appallingly by Stalin. However, their own treatment of classes of people they disapproved of – among them Jews, homosexuals, drug users and sexually active women – was hardly any better.
Throughout the book, words like ‘justice’ and ‘honour’ are invoked to justify brutality. Much of the second half involves Lilin and a group of teenage hoods hunting a bunch of crims from a neighbouring suburb who have raped a local girl. Eventually they track down five guys whose guilt seems doubtful at best. The guys - against whom there is no evidence beyond rumour – are stripped naked and machine-gunned down by Lilin and friends. The narrator is surprised to find that he does not feel happy afterwards. “What still tortures me is her pain, against which all our justice has been useless.”
In reality the ‘justice’ meted out by the Urkas was brutal and arbitrary. Lilin recounts the case of a couple of ‘junkies’ who allow their baby to die of neglect. A local criminal goes round to their house, beats them to death, and throws their bodies out of the window “where the people trampled them underfoot until they were reduced to a pulp.” When Lilin hears that a group of Georgians, who offended the Siberians’ honour, have been massacred by members of his community, he thinks: ”How wonderful it is to be Siberian!”
The book has some redeeming features. Lilin’s accounts of the Urkas’ way of life are interesting examples of folk anthropology by an insider. No male “honest criminal” is allowed to talk to the police. So when the cops come around, the chief crim calls his wife and uses her as a mediator. “Tell this piece of filth that no one is going to point weapons in my face …” Interminable rituals surround who is allowed to look at and speak to whom, what they can say, and what the consequences are (usually very unpleasant) if they get it wrong.
Lilin is fascinated by Urka tattoos and trains as a tattoist. The language of tattoos is complex. As a Siberian criminal goes through life he adds more and more to the gallery on his skin, which gradually builds up into a narrative that tells his life story. Not knowing the right meaning of a tattoo can get you killed – as an undercover cop finds out when he tries to fake it. One of the most prized tattoos is of the Virgin Mary - religion is constantly invoked by the Urkas - holding a machine gun.
How true is all this? Lilin maintains that he is writing partly from his own experiences and partly from stories told him by elders. These days, according to Lilin, Siberians have forgotten their grand old traditions. Rather than living by the old code, they are obsessed with consumerism, mobile phones, and the pursuit of wealth. Lilin despises the modern trend, but despite his rambling self-justification, it is hard to believe that the Urka culture he describes so warmly was any better.
Nicolai Lilin was recently interviewed on the ABC’s The Book Show.
Here’s Nicolai again, speaking about his book on youtube. Check out the amazing tattoos.
May 19, 2010
There are few reasons to lament the end of the Cold War, but the division of the world into two hostile blocs had one thing in its favour: it was great for espionage fiction. Ian Fleming, John Le Carre and Len Deighton, wildly different as they are, are perhaps the most successful or best-known exponents of the genre. Both Fleming and Le Carre had actual experience of espionage (Deighton was never a spy - besides writing novels he had a second career as a cookery writer, and his list of publications includes Ou est le Garlic? and Len Deighton’s Action Cookbook along with The Ipcress File. A bit like Matt Preston with a Smith & Wesson.)
But I reckon the best of them is the American Charles McCarry, whose novels are now being republished in Australia, several of which I’ve read with pleasure. Like Fleming and Le Carre, McCarry has serious experience in the spying game – he spent years in deep cover for the CIA. This gives his descriptions of the techniques of ‘tradecraft’ the ring of authenticity. Spying in McCarry’s novels is nothing like the combination of technology and camp that you get in the pages of Fleming, and McCarry’s melancholy hero Paul Christopher, a career CIA agent, couldn’t be farther away from James Bond. These days it’s hard to imagine a CIA agent as a hero, but Christopher is one of the old school of left-liberal spooks, an Ivy League-educated former poet, troubled by the moral implications of his actions. The Washington Post has called McCarry’s novels “a lament for a dying generation of American spies.”
Christopher made his first appearance in The Miernik Dossier (1973) and returned in The Tears of Autumn (1974) , an ingenious thriller that explains the assassination of John F. Kennedy – quite credibly – by reference to the war in Vietnam. He reappears in The Secret Lovers (1977), The Last Supper (1983) and Second Sight (1991); in McCarry’s more recent Christopher’s Ghosts (2007) we learn of Christopher’s youth as a young American caught up in a love affair in Nazi Germany.
The Secret Lovers, which I have just read, is not just a terrific spy novel, it’s a terrific novel in any genre – elegantly written and psychologicallycomplex. During the 1960s, Christopher becomes involved in a CIA plot to smuggle a novel by a Soviet dissident out of Russia and publish it in the West. (It’s not a far-fetched idea – this is what happened to Vassily Grossman’s masterpiece about life under Stalin, Life and Fate, a few years after McCarry’s novel was published.) The problem, as Christopher knows, is that as soon as the novel is published in the West, its author will be killed by the KGB. He urges restraint, but others insist on pushing ahead with the plan. Simultaneously investigating the murder of one of his agents, Christopher begins to suspect that someone within the CIA is playing a double game.
Meanwhile Christopher’s marriage to the beautiful Cathy is floundering, in part because she rightly suspects that his devotion to the job is greater than his devotion to her. “You can’t love, can you? … It’s that goddamned work you do.” She embarks on a series of affairs in a futile attempt to jolt Christopher out of his passivity, including one with a horrendous Italian communist film director. None of this has any effect on Christopher, who is so practised at concealing emotion that he seems to feel nothing. Even his boss tells him: “I don’t know why it surprises me, but it always does, when you decide to show what a cold-blooded son of a bitch you are.”
The novel draws an extended analogy between love affairs and the techniques of espionage. Christopher’s job is to recruit agents from foreign powers and turn them to the American cause, a process likened to seduction. We are told that he cannot work effectively with an agent unless he feels some emotional connection with them – strange, since he seems to have little with his wife. Then there is the double meaning in the novel’s title: Cathy has secret lovers, but those who practise espionage are in the grip of a passion that’s even stronger: they are secret lovers, as in lovers of secrets. “Cathy was as silent about her lovers as Christopher about his spies.” Cathy and Christopher even have code words, which include the word “love” - so, when Christopher finally wants to use the word “love” to Cathy in its usual sense, he cannot do so. “Because they had made it into a code, he couldn’t use the word ‘love’ in a telegram.”
The ironic elegance of McCarry’s writing, the complex characterisation and the insights into twentieth century political history – there’s a terrific backstory about espionage during the Spanish Civil War - make The Secret Lovers very rewarding. The craft of espionage isn’t romanticised – while we are never allowed to forget what is at stake, we also understand that spying is an obsession to those who practise it, so powerful that it destroys the other relationships in their lives. Paul Christopher is not a particularly likeable character, but he’s a riveting one, and when his superhuman self-control finally cracks, the effect is surprisingly moving.
Here’s a fascinating interview with Charles McCarry on his life as a spy, journalist and novelist.
Here’s a list of McCarry novels currently in print.
March 18, 2010
To take the second first: I find inspiration a very dodgy concept. It’s commonly associated with the romantic idea of the writer in a godlike trance, while the words flow as if by sorcery onto the paper. It’s often accompanied by comments like “the characters just took over and went out of my control.” That doesn’t conform at all to my experience – writing usually feels more like a case of squeezing words out of the pen as if under torture, then going over and over them in an attempt to shape something worthwhile out of the dreck in front of you. Sometimes writing feels about as romantic as double entry bookkeeping.
On the other hand it does seem to be true that what is most valuable about a piece of writing, and what gives you the will to go on with the often tedious job of creating it, is some kind of inner desire that is not fully understood. Why, after all, spend years toiling at something that may never see the light of day and will almost certainly not repay your labours financially, if it isn’t meeting some inner need? You can’t express this desire before you write: it’s in the process of writing that you find a voice for it. A work of literature that has any value at all is likely to have something like this at the heart, which is what readers respond to, even if they don’t fully recognise it.
I had been thinking about these questions when I was loaned* Mario Vargas Llosa’s Letters to a Young Novelist which proposes a theory about literary creation that seems worth considering. Vargas Llosa starts off by saying that literary vocation is
a predisposition of murky origin that causes certain men and women to dedicate their lives to an activity that one day they feel called, almost obliged to pursue, because they sense that only in pursuing this vocation – writing stories, for example – will they feel complete, at peace with themselves, able to give the best of themselves without the nagging fear that they are wasting their lives.
He compares this predisposition to a tapeworm that takes over the organism of the writer. But what creates the worm?
For Vargas Llosa, the origin of the desire to write comes in childhood, when children form the desire to “rebel against life as it actually is” by creating imaginary worlds that are the world as they believe it should be. In adulthood, those in whom the desire to rebel against the actual world is strongest, who want to create life as it isn’t, make the existential choice to become writers.
And then? Vargas Llosa’s next point is more intriguing. He maintains that writers cannot chose their themes – that their themes are chosen for them by the way life experiences are imprinted on their subconscious.
All testimonies tend to concur: a story, a character, a situation, a mystery haunted me, obsessed me, importuned me from the very depths of myself until I was obliged to be free of it.
Interestingly, Vargas Llosa doesn’t distinguish between good and bad writers – both are subject to the same laws. Proust’s mighty oeuvre was inspired by his obsession with memory and lost time. But a bad writer like Restif de la Bretonne (who I’ve never heard of, but apparently he was a big deal in the eighteenth century) was inspired, according to Vargas Llosa, by a profound case of foot fetishism. That was his rebellion against life as it was actually lived – he compensated by creating an alternative fictional world in which men woo women for the beauty of their feet and boots.
Or take Stieg Larsson, author of the multi-squillion selling Millenium series. According to his partner Eva Gabrielsson, when he was 15 Larssen witnessed, but was unable to stop, a gang rape of a girl by boys who were his friends. When he met the girl later and tried to apologise, she said “Don’t talk to me. You’re one of them.” Gabrielsson says that this event was Larssen’s secret shame, which he was unable to talk about. Instead he poured out his hatred of misogyny in his books, in which revenge is enacted on men who abuse women. In the original Swedish, the title of Larssen’s first novel is not The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo but The Men Who Hate Women. (The Age ‘Good Weekend’ magazine, 20 March 2010)
So the theme is given to the writer and s/he has no choice about it. This means, according to Vargas Llosa, that writers who consciously try to find a different theme because the ones that come naturally to them aren’t appealing enough are making “an enormous mistake”.
That is what authenticity or sincerity is for the novelist: the acceptance of his/her own demons and the decision to serve them as well as possible.
* thanks Elly
February 28, 2010
At the close of his book of essays How Fiction Works, literary critic James Wood writes: “The writer has to act as if the available novelistic methods are continually about to turn into mere convention and so has to outwit that inevitable ageing. The true writer is one who must always be acting as if life were a category beyond anything the novel had yet grasped.”
This is as good a notion as any when thinking about Roberto Bolaño’s monstrous novel 2666. It’s an intimidating book, not just because of the size (898 pages), or because of Bolaño’s much-hyped reputation as a towering genius of South American literature, or even because this “novel” is really five novels crammed together. It’s got something to do with Bolaño’s determination to break every rule of conventional literature. Expect the plot to be resolved? Characters to develop? A moral? It’s not going to happen while Bolaño’s around. And in this way he seems to be doing exactly what what Wood suggests – writing a new kind of novel that expresses his idea of the messiness and inconclusiveness of life.
Bolaño’s life was picturesque even by the standards of South American novelists. He was born in Chile, the son of a boxer, but grew up in Mexico City, where he became a journalist. He returned to Chile in 1973 to support the socialist government of Allende, and was thrown into prison after it was overthrown by Pinochet’s fascists. Expecting to be murdered, he was released when two of his prison guards turned out to be old schoolfellows. On release he became a Trotskyist, bohemian poet and professional provocateur, highly contemptuous of the established old guard of South American writers. In the 70s he moved to Europe, lived a vagabond life, wrote poetry and acquired a heroin habit. By 1991 he had a family and embarked on the unlikely project of supporting them by writing novels, of which he wrote seven in a dozen years, along with many short stories and essays. (Apparently two more novels were found among his papers after his death). He was rapidly hailed as the most important Latin American writer of his generation, and died at the age of 50, awaiting a liver transplant.
2666 was his final novel, published posthumously, and I confess to not having read his others. According to the introduction, Bolaño wanted the five sections of 2666 to be published individually (because that would mean better sales, and a better income for his family after his death), but his executors decided to publish them as one, in accordance with Bolaño’s original artistic intention. So what we have are five novels which connect with each other at occasional points, share themes and motifs, but are not closely related in the manner of a sequence like, say, Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet.
A mere summary doesn’t begin to do justice to 2666, because the experience of reading it involves multiple digressions, stories within stories, and minor characters who hijack the narrative then disappear. But here goes. The first section,’ The Part about Archimboldi’, concerns four literary critics who are obsessed with an elusive German writer. The critics meet at conferences, fall in and out of love with each other, and set off to Mexico in search of the never-sighted Archimboldi, but fail to find him. Section Two concerns a Mexican academic, Amalfitano, who is fascinated by the obscure author of a book about geometry, and attempts to repeat experiments conducted by the avant garde artist Marcel Duchamp. The third part, ‘The Part About Fate’, concerns a journalist – named Fate, of course - who goes to Mexico to cover a boxing match and gets drawn into various events which he does not comprehend.
The massive fourth part, ‘The Part About The Crimes’, is set in the nightmarish fictional town of Santa Teresa, clearly based on Ciudad Juarez. The town is in the grip of drug lords, corrupt politicians, businessmen and cops. Young women are raped and murdered at a rate of several every month – mostly working class young women employed at the maquiladoras (factories operated by multinationals). In this section, Bolaño seems to have invented a new genre of crime writing: rather than a few murders and a dedicated investigator who tracks down the killers, we have dozens, perhaps hundreds of murders (I lost count), multiple killers, and investigators who occasionally manifest interest but often seem indifferent or even complicit in the crimes. What is chilling about Bolano’s account is not just the matter-of-fact way the crimes are described, but the lack of reaction to them. “The dead woman must have been about twenty-five and she had a congenital dislocation of the right hip. And yet, no one missed her …” There is little official response to the crimes, and the only person passionate about bringing them to public attention is an elderly, female television psychic. There are many hints of official cover-ups - forensic evidence is always disappearing - and it is suggested (as has been claimed in the case of the Ciudad Juarez femicides) that powerful men are having women murdered at orgies. Almost as many women, though, are killed in banal working-class domestics – and Bolano describes these too. It could be argued that the whole town, or the whole of Mexico, is the murderer.
The final section returns to the figure of Archimboldi, and recounts the life of the mysterious German writer, from his bizarre experiences as a soldier in World War Two to his years of literary success. It’s a black joke on the part of Bolaño that the four critics in the first part were unable to find out the tiniest detail about Archimboldi; in part five, we have 270 pages about every aspect of his life. We who have never read Archimboldi learn more about him than we ever wanted to know, while those who devoted their lives to him know nothing.
It’s not surprising that, confronted by a book like this, critics resort to adjectives like “visionary”, “terrifying”, “awe-inspiring”, “wondrous” ,”challenging”, “intellectual”, “intermittently insane” et cetera. That’s all fair enough, but what is harder to explain is just what Bolaño is doing. For one thing, he is undermining the conventions of the traditional novel. Take the idea, common in crime fiction, that investigators investigate. In the fourth part of 2666, after about 300 pages of murders, a character called Albert Kessler appears, said to be the world’s foremost expert on serial killers. Aha, the reader thinks, now a real investigator is on the job, not like those corrupt Santa Teresa cops. Kessler wanders around for a bit, gives a lecture, then disappears from the narrative. Well, Bolaño seems to be saying, what did you expect? This isn’t Hollywood. Another convention that he flouts is the notion of the protagonist whose journey the reader follows. In Bolano’s world, you are likely to find yourself taken on a thirty-page detour by a minor character who never reappears. There’s something radically democratic about this. In Santa Teresa, a woman can be murdered and no one knows or cares who she is, but for Bolano, everyone’s story is important.
More philosophically, his project seems to be about knowledge. His books are full of characters who are seeking knowledge – whether it’s the facts about the life of a missing writer, why an experiment was conducted 80 years ago, or what is behind a hideous crime. Bolaño chucks in teasing lines like “No one pays attention to these killings, but the secret of the world is hidden in them.” The secret of the world? Where was that? I must have missed it. We, the readers, join the ranks of those hunting, hopelessly, for answers which are not forthcoming. In the end we are no better than Archimboldi’s critics, charging off on a wild goose chase to Mexico. We’ve read 900 pages and we know little more than we did at the start. There is no answer, no philosophy, no system that explains it. There’s just Bolaño, floating over the whole thing, laughing at us.
Here’s a fantastic essay by Benjamin Kunkel from the London Review of Books on Bolano and his work.
And a fascinating interview with Natasha Wimmer from Granta on the challenges of translating Bolaño.