Christopher J. Yates ‘Grist Mill Road’


“For years I was obsessed with Japan because I considered it the strangest place827AB891-A08F-4261-8F3D-21964701E469 I could visit that didn’t require space travel. Then again, I had not, until my early twenties, experienced New Jersey.”


Grist Mill road is a psychological thriller set in the present but based on events taken place years before as the main protagonists were young adolescents. This is a thriller told individually by the three characters and follows the outline of the unreliable narrator whose descriptions of these past events seems entirely believable but in retrospect incomplete, the why of the matter being avoided.

So in 2008 and in turn, Patch then Hannah and finally Mathew tell us of the events that occurred in upstate New York back in 1982 when, as Patch tells us that at the age of 12, he and his slightly older friend Mathew take Hannah out into the country where they have played all summer and whilst Patch, as Mathew asks him, goes away to count to one hundred, but secretly watches, Mathew ties Hannah to a tree and shoots one of her eyes out with an air rifle:


I remember the gunshots made a wet sort of sound, phssh phssh phssh, and each time he hit her she screamed. Do the math and the whole thing probably went on for as long as ten minutes. I just stood there and watched.


Flash forward to 2008, Patch has recently got together and is living together with Hannah as Mathew seems to reappear in their lives pushing them to bring old memories to the surface and we are brought to re-examine and to see the same story we have been told, of the evil Mathew, the innocent Hannah and the voyeur Patch through different eyes, we learn more about them at that time, Hannah coming from a rich family, Mathew has a drunken abusive father and Patch’s father is a small time but ambitious local politician and of maybe more nuanced events, as the story rushes towards its troubled climax.

First published in English as ‘Grist Mill Road‘ by Picador in 2017

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Feridun Zaimoglu ‘Scum’


“All of a sudden another Albanian slashed my shoulder with a shank. I didn’t even notice. I was numbed from anger, from coke and from vodka. img_1206And then my boys waded in, and the fucking cops turned up with their lights flashing, running all over the shop now that there was nothing left to do. Even an ambulance rolled up, but I’m too proud to be carried off on a stretcher by the fucking vultures. Fuck me I’d just fought off four serious assholes, to have managed that and not to walk out on my own two legs, well what sort of a shitty end would that have been I ask you? Then the fucking girls arrived yakking on ‘oh Ertan, no kidding, you held your own!”***


In Feridun Zaimoglu’s ‘Scum’, not yet translated into English and read in French as ‘Racaille’ we hear the true story of Ertan Ongun, and I use the word hear with purpose as the book is based on interviews recorded on tape for Zaimoglu. Ertan Ongun in his own words is a ‘dago, a junky and a gangster’, born in Germany and living back and forth between Germany and Turkey. The story is told in Ertan’s language, the language of the streets, remarkably translated into French and good luck to a future English translator!

Ertan takes us through his life in Kiel, as he slides inevitably from delinquency through drug abuse to prison and then finally, here, hopelessness. For the most part as the opening quote illustrates in his circles you can’t survive without pride and the young Ertan has ‘cojones’ to spare, he and his friends hang out in a bar known as the “Flohmarkt” where most of the actions begin or the ideas are hatched, told in short, mostly 3 to 5 page chapters. We learn of the different groups around them, the Kurds, the Albanians and the Yougoslaves which he paints in a couple of sentences as for example here with the Yougoslaves:


“The bloke that ran the club ‘Eros’, was a Yougoslave. He was called Zlatko. He had a large Mercedes 500, a massive gold chain with a huge cross studded with big diamonds and all the rest.”***


I can almost see Zlatko. As the book advances, everyone around Ertan just sort of naturally winds up in prison or dead and Ertan slowly slides into drugs, doing everything but slowly being destroyed by ‘H’ at first he manages to get off of it on his trips to Turkey but he then quickly finds a source there too.

The book is full of bravado and humour, he tells us who he is with the gloves off, this isn’t an attempt to get us to like him and as Zaimoglu concludes:


“He delivers his message: we’re the dagos that you, the Germans, have systematically put forward as representing. Well now, here we are, in every way identical to the image you have created of us, to your fears.”***


Since this book, Zaimoglu has gone on to be a well known literary figure in Germany, a playwright and author amongst other things but as yet not translated into English.

First published in German as ‘Abschaum Die wahre Geschichte Von Ertan Ongun’ by Rotbuch/Sabine Groenewold Verlage in 1997
Translated into French by Florence Tenenbaum as “Racaille La véritable histoire d’Ertan Ongun” and published by Stock in 2004
*** My translation

Dave Eggers ‘The Circle’

 


“We all have a right to know everything we can, we all collectively own the accumulated knowledge of the world.”
“Right” Mae said, “so what happens if I deprive anyone or everyone of something I know? Aren’t I stealing from my fellow humans?”
“Indeed” Bailey said, nodding earnestly.57EB273D-FD10-451F-BFF6-670CD29C2500
Ma
e looked at the audience, at the entire first row, the only faces visible nodding too.
“And given your way with words Ma
e, I wonder if you can tell us this last revelation you made? What did you say?”
“Well, I said privacy is theft”…the words now appeared on the screen behind in great white letters
Secrets are lies
Caring is sharing
Privacy is theft.


War is peace
Freedom is slavery
Ignorance is strength

In The Novel, 1984, the world is ruled by a group of people who through intimidation or persuasion have brainwashed the entire population into believing their slogans which have one meaning for the Party and one meaning for the people, putting  into words the idea of doublethink, which in its essence is a parody, breaking down what can be obtained by controlling the people through  a total, ruthless and cynical  monopoly of information.

Clearly, as illustrated from the opening quote, Dave Eggers is revisiting the idea of a totalitarian threat in a future world where all information could be controlled by one malevolent source, with the Circle modelling itself on a malevolent Facebook/Google type company. The book begins with a believable situation of a modern digital company, the Circle, as the main protagonist, May, leaves her job at a utilities company to join the almost cult like company, the Circle, thanks to her friend Annie. The Circle links users’ personal emails, social media, banking, and purchasing information, all of which is already available today to a certain extent on the net. But to what aim?

It comes As no surprise that this book came out the same year as the Edward Snowden revelations and seems to address two of the main points argued by Snowden, in creating a world that Snowden so clearly rejects:


I don’t want to live in a world where everything that I say, everything I do, everyone I talk to, every expression of creativity or love or friendship is recorded.


He also presents a world where everyone is happy to give up their privacy for the common good because they have nothing to hide:


Arguing that you don’t care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don’t care about free speech because you have nothing to say.


So briefly onto the story, Mae discovers and embraces in full each of the particularities of The Circle, from the scoring of each employee by their social media scores and the constant need to recontact customers to persuade them to increase the customer satisfaction scores (who isn’t contacted these days by incessant customer satisfaction questionnaires? If I’ve a complaint I’ll tell them!), to the dorms on campus, not obligatory of course but why would you not want to use them, I asked why would you not want to use them!

Of course, someone who has access to all information could be tempted to use it to reinforce their position, Politicians who take a stand against The Circle find themselves shamed on social media, but how far will the Circle go and who controls the seemingly poorly thought through incremental changes, from voting on social media for lunch at the Circle to voting for Elections using the same media:


She walked up to the screen and pushed yes, the engineers cheered, the developers cheered, on the screen a happy face appeared with the words “you are heard” arcing above. The question disappeared replaced by the words Demoxy result, 75 per cent of respondents want more veggie options, more veggie options will be provided. Sharma was beaming, “see that’s a simulated result of course, we don’t have everyone on Demoxy yet but you get the jest, the question appears, everyone stops briefly what they are doing, responds and instantly The Circle can take appropriate action knowing the full and complete will of the people, incredible right?”
“It is”, Mae said
“Imagine this rolled out nationwide, worldwide….”
Mae left the Renaissance and was greeted just outside the door by a group of young Circlers, all of whom wanted to tell her, all of them on their tiptoes bursting that they had never voted before that they had been utterly uninterested in politics and felt disconnected entirely from their government, feeling that they had no real voice. They told her that by the time their vote or their name on some petition was filtered through their local government and then their state officials and finally their representatives in Washington it felt like sending a messages in a bottle across a vast and troubled sea. But now, the young Circlers said, they felt involved, if Demoxy worked they said, then laughed, when Demoxy is implemented, of course it will work, they said and when it does you will finally have a fully engaged populace and when you do, the country and the world will hear from the youth and their inherent idealism and progressivism will upend the planet.


All of the technology is leading towards the laudable wish for transparency, firstly in the political domain but applied so as Tom control the politicians, Initially some politicians, after seeing the power of The Circle on the previously shamed representatives of the people, agree to go “transparent” that is to say to wear a portable camera so that all of their actions and all of their tractations are visible in real time, then Mae herself agrees to go “transparent”, after all  she has nothing to hide.

For me, a particularly heavy addition to the story was the Circle leader interested in exotic aquarium life but who had the rare species eaten by a shark, this could have been more subtle.

And finally, to tie in the opening picture, The Circle of course wanted to share and control all medical data.

First published in English as ‘The Circle’ by Knopf in 2013

Mohsin Hamid ‘Exit West’


In a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war, 28078486-3414-447A-8036-EB4B65EC53BAa young man met a young woman in a classroom and did not speak to her.


Mohsin Hamid in Exit West, shortlisted for the 2017 Booker Prize, leads us by the hand from a city in a middle eastern country, poor, but with hope, where Saeed sells outdoor advertising space in a small company and lives with his parents, whilst Nadia has a job in an insurance company  and has managed the prowess of being able to live alone. Nadia and Saeed get to know each other with initial mistrust illustrated by the following quote as they meet for coffee for the first time:


They were sitting at a table for two by a window, overlooking snarled traffic on the street below. Their phones rested screens-down between them, like the weapons of desperadoes at a parley.


Mohsin Hamid takes us through their brief period of getting to know each other in almost normal circumstances, where Nadia wears a Flowing black robe covering her from the tips of her toes to her jugular notch, not from religious conviction but to protect herself from men, and where Saeed disguises himself in a one of her robes to be able to visit her in her appartement, then in a few lines he describes the tipping point:


The following evening helicopters filled the sky like birds startled by a gunshot, or by the blow of an axe at the base of their tree. They rose, singly and in pairs, and fanned out above the city in the reddening dusk, as the sun slipped below the horizon, and the whirr of their rotors echoed through windows and down alleys, seemingly compressing the air beneath them, as though each were mounted atop an invisible column, an invisible breathable cylinder, these odd, hawkish, mobile sculptures, some thin, with tandem canopies, pilot and gunner at different heights, and some fat, full of personnel, chopping, chopping through the heavens.
Saeed watched them with his parents from their balcony.
Nadia watched them from her rooftop, alone.


He then briefly takes us through the total breakdown of ordinary civilised life at the outbrek of war, then the story until this point torn between reality and something lighter moves towards the fantastic, he manages this by following Saeed and Nadia as they become displaced citizens, migrants but shrinking their trips between countries to passages through doors, as if the true question for both the migrants and the habitants of their destinations is not the trip nor the barriers but the tensions on their arrival and how the world could react:


But Nadia’s new friend was as good as her word, because very early one morning she put both Nadia and Saeed on the back of her scooter and sped them through still quiet streets to a house on a hill with a courtyard. They dashed inside and there was a door. The girl wished them good luck, and she hugged Nadia tight, and Saeed was surprised to see what appeared to be tears in the girl’s eyes, or if not tears then at least a misty shine, and Nadia hugged her too, and this hug lasted a long time, and the girl whispered something to her, whispered, and then she and Saeed turned and stepped through the door and left Mykonos behind.
They emerged in a bedroom with a view of the night sky and furnishings so expensive and well made that Saeed and Nadia thought they were in a hotel, of the sort seen in films and thick, glossy magazines.


So what would happen if people could move about as easily as this, Mohsin Hamid presents us with the competing factions within the different host countries, illustrated by, here, London with the initial reaction from the nativists:


Saeed and Nadia heard it said that nativist extremists were forming their own legions, with a wink and a nod from the authorities, and the social media chatter was of a coming night of shattered glass, but all this would probably take time to organize, and in that time Saeed and Nadia had to make a decision: whether to stay or to go.


But in line with the lighter positive vision of the world and its capability for good, he imagines the world embracing the situation:


In the formerly protected green belt around London a ring of new cities was being built, cities that would be able to accommodate more people again than London itself. This development was called the London Halo, one of innumerable human halos and satellites and constellations springing up in the country and in the world.


For the migrants however, acceptance alone is not an answer to the trauma that they live through nor the people nor the life they leave behind epitomised by the differing capabilities of Nadia and Saeed to accept their situation:


It seemed to Nadia that the further they moved from the city of their birth, through space and through time, the more he sought to strengthen his connection to it, tying ropes to the air of an era that for her was unambiguously gone.


This is a dreamlike book Treating an age old problem of the pain of migration, not of the journey but of the change.

First published in English as ‘Exit West’ by Hamish Hamilton in 2017

China Miéville ‘The City & The City’


As I turned, I saw past the edges of the estate to the end of GunterStrász, between the dirty brick buildings. Trash moved in the wind. It might be anywhere. 4CB0CDAD-2A82-405B-BE6E-3C0232ED1564An elderly woman was walking slowly away from me in a shambling sway. She turned her head and looked at me. I was struck by her motion, and I met her eyes. I wondered if she wanted to tell me something. In my glance I took in her clothes, her way of walking, of holding herself, and looking.
With a hard start, I realised that she was not on Gunter-Strász at all, and that I should not have seen her.


Here is Miéville’s story of the split cities, Bes el and Ul Qoma, more than just twin cities, they exist in the same place, they share a topology and the equivalent areas in the other city are known as topolganger area, confused? Well don’t be, from an early age children in these cities are brought up not to see the people or places in the other city and if by chance they should, they learn to Unseen them!


In Bes  el it was a quiet area, but the streets were crowded with those elsewhere. I unsaw them, but it took time to pick past them all.


So in this back ground, Miéville has crafted a detective story, not quite “The Bridge” or The Tunnel”, But you get the drift. The crime, a murder discovered in Bes el, and being handled by Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Bes  el Extreme Crime Squad and which will eventually lead him to work with his counterpart from Ul Qoma, Senior Detective Qussim Dhatt, and by the way, is Dhatt a goody or a baddy?

Miéville’s story is set in the present day with the cities being seen as somewhat backward to the rest of the world, and travel abroad is rare for the inhabitants, Borlú’s partner, Corwi asks him:


So you were in Berlin. Do you speak German then?’ ‘I used to,’ I said. ‘Ein bisschen.’ ‘Why were you there?’ ‘I was young. It was a conference. ‘Policing Split Cities.’ They had sessions on Budapest and Jerusalem and Berlin, and Bes  el and Ul Qoma.’


Visits from the outside world are also complex as the visitors are required to attend an induction course:


After a two-week or however-long-it-was course, no one thought visitors would have metabolised the deep prediscursive instinct for our borders that Bes  and Ul Qomans have, to have picked up real rudiments of unseeing. But we did insist that they acted as if they had. We, and the authorities of Ul Qoma, expected strict overt decorum, interacting with, and indeed obviously noticing, our crosshatched neighbouring city-state not at all.


 

So this is the first layer of the mystery, but then comes the specifics of the two cities, first of all the policing of the strict separation, carried out by a third set of police, not belonging to either of the two cities and known as “Breach”, an all powerful force that do not seem to be accountable to anyone. The second part of the mystery, pretty logically is that if each city could not see the inhabitants of the other city, could a third secret city exist whereby both cities could not see them or would unsee them? Are the rumours of this third city, Orciny, just a folk tale?

Well in order to obtain the answers to these and many other questions you may need to read the book or if you wish to see how someone else has imagined all of this this story has been dramatised by the BBC Trailer of the series

First published in English as ‘The City & The City’ by Random House in 2010

Paolo Cognetti ‘The Eight Mountains’


My father and bruno’s Uncle were on their second glass as we caught them in deep discussion about the economy of alpine farming……Luigi Gugliemina was really happy to be able to talk about it to a competent man,51570AFD-D86D-4CE0-B5D6-A3119E50F5C4 as he went through his accounts out loud to show him that with the prices and he ridiculous norms imposed on the farmers, his work no longer made any sense, and he only carried on out of pure passion for the job.
He said, “When I’m dead, up there, I won’t give it ten years before the forest will have reclaimed the land.***


In this Strega prize winning novel, the narrator, Pietro tells us the story of his and his best friend Bruno’s contrasting lives, with the mountains and nature providing their common ground. The novel slowly shows us the choices Pietro is free to make whilst Bruno cannot and would not want to see any choices but those he is born into.

Pietro is a city dweller whose parents take him, from a young age, each summer to discover the mountains in the Aoste valley where he meets the young Bruno and year after year as they play in the alpine farmland together, they slowly get to know each other, or at least the parts of each other they are willing to acknowledge. The village, Grana, that Pietro visits and in which Bruno lives, in these days just before mass tourism discovers the alps, is extremely poor and is slowly dying, an example of the senselessness of the way of life, as well as an announcement of things to come is given in the opening quote by Bruno’s uncle, the age old way of mountain life is coming to an end.

Role on years later when, after having lost contact, Bruno and Pietro once again become friends, Bruno helps Pietro to build a stone house high above Grana. Bruno becomes as if by prophesy from the earlier times, an alpine farmer taking over his uncle Luigi’s land, whilst Pietro,  as described in the following quote, lives the explorers life, discovering other mountain areas, but never belonging anywhere, up to a point described by the following anecdote. Pietro brings a girlfriend, Lara, up to his mountain home all the time planning not to get involved, not to be weighed down or have his movements, his freedom impeded. Months later Bruno phones to ask if it would be a problem between them if he were to see Lara, whom he then marries.


I wasn’t there that year. In Nepal, I was in touch with the world of NGO’s and was working with a few of them…in the mountains, I came across all sorts of people, from old hippies to students undertaking international civic service, from voluntary unpaid doctors to Mountaineers who, between expeditions, helped out on work sites. Even if all of these people weren’t entirely devoid of ambitions or conflicts of power, they were not without idealism. And amongst these idealists I felt good.***


So does Luigi’s prophesy play out or does Bruno with Lara, show that it is possible to survive as an alpine farmer, in Bruno’s times of need can he count on his friend Pietro? Does Pietro manage to reign in his solitary way of life, of not belonging but of watching life go by? What do you think?

First published in Italian as ‘Le Otto Montagne’ by Einaudi in 2016
Translated into French by Anita Rochedy as “Les Huits Montagnes” and published by Stock in 2017
*** My translation

Luca Di Fulvio ‘The Boy who Granted Dreams’


She took a length of rope and tied it around Cetta’s left shoulder. “Stand up,” she ordered, and then pulled the rope down to her crotch, so that the child had to hunch over. F56CFD9E-BE6C-44B2-A3E7-35A7AD50EA4BNext, she knotted it tightly around her left thigh. “This is a secret between you and me,” she told her…..“You’re going to tell everyone the fall left you crippled. Everyone, even your brothers,” she explained to the child. “You’ll wear this rope on for a month, to get used to it. After that, I’ll take it off, but you’ll still walk as though you were still wearing it…..And when the padrone comes by in the evening with his beautiful automobile and honks his horn, you run out to greet him.”


Back to Italy at the turn of the century, if you work on the padrone’s land, well you belong to him and Cetta in her early teens, beautiful, has been noticed by the padrone. Her mother goes to the extent of protecting her by the subterfuge of passing her for a cripple at the beginning of Di Fulvio’s sweeping love story of an Italian immigrant in New York, read for the now extended Italian lit month.

Of course this attempt turned out not to be sufficient and Cetta soon finds herself working as a prostitute in far of New York with a baby boy, Natale, re-named Christmas at Ellis Island and so begins the story of Christmas, which in the Italian quarters we are soon lead to understand that this must be a darkies name (I didn’t feel up to the ‘n’ word of the book). As Christmas grows up in this poor cut throat district he creates a gang, the Diamond Dogs, And we live through the petty crime of the beginnings.

One night whilst still young, Christmas comes across Hannah, a young Jewish girl from a wealthy family, half beaten to death, raped and with a finger sheared off (to obtain her ring) by the families gardener, Bill. Christmas takes her to hospital in his arms and so begins an epic love story, or at least that is the intention. A story where Hannah and Christmas are separated, Hannah becomes a professional photographer in the Los Angeles of the movies, never recovering from her assault, always afraid, Christmas, remaining in New York, becomes a star of the radio telling stories about  his New York, the lower east side, of the gangs and in particular of the Diamond Dogs and finally Bill also ends up in Los Angeles working in the violent pornography business.

As the story works towards a climax I berate myself for reading through to the end a story entirely ruined for me by the longwinded descriptions of their feelings for one another, taking up easily a hundred pages of the book! A shame as the story itself relates an era.

First published in Italian as ‘La Gang dei Sogni’ by Arnoldo Mondadori in 2008
Translated into English by Ann McGarrell as “The Boy Who Granted Dreams” and published by Bastei Lübbe in 2015