Sebastian Barry ‘Days Without End’


Why should a man help another man? No need. The world don’t care about that, world is just a passing parade of cruel moments and long drear stretches where nothing going on but chicoree drinking and whisky and cards. img_1289No requirement for nothing else tucked in there. We’re strange people, soldiers stuck out in wars, we ain’t saying no laws in Washington, we ain’t walking on yon great lawns. Storms kill us and battles and the earth closes over and no one need say a word and I don’t believe we mind.  Happy to breathe because we’ve seen terror and horror and then for a while they ain’t in dominion. Bibles wern’t wrote for us nor any books, we ain’t maybe what people do call human since we ain’t partaking of that bread of heaven.


The narrator, Thomas McNulty tells us the immigrant tale of the Indian wars, the Civil war and fear his beau John Cole in an America where men were men and well, there really weren’t any women. In this book read for the Roman de Rochefort prize, three main themes prevail, firstly as illustrated by the opening quote, the boredom interspersed with savagery of the army, secondly hunger, from the death of the whole of McNulty’s family from famine in Ireland to the deaths of most of the “passengers”, who were of no value, on the trip to Canada and the subsequent quarantine on to hunger wandering in America, to the hunger of the Indians and even the hunger of the soldiers who were saved from starving to death by the very Indians they were fighting. As McNulty once says with typical Irish humour hiding his fear:


I was so hungry I could eat the head of John the Baptist.


The third theme throughout is the absence of women in the frontier lands, from the starving boys Thomas and John Cole getting work in a saloon in a frontier mining town dressing as women in shows for the miners through to their living every waking and sleeping moment together in the army forts where despite their discretion there can be no secrets and finally their living together in their remote farm as John and Thomassina, once again wearing dresses, with no sense of right or wrong, guilt or innocence, just peace at being who he is.

So onto the Indian wars, where the soldiers, amid both food and female deprivation become in the heat of the action animals rather than humans, captured by Sebastian Barry in the mouth of his narrator whose rural background shines through his simile after the troop had just killed all of the children and squaws of an Indian village and two of the troopers, Watchhorn and Pearl had raped some of these women, a crime the army shot them for:


The troopers worked until I believe their arms could do no more, Watchhorn and Pearl Rutting and shouting then ruthlessly killing again till in runs the major, shouting the loudest with true horror in his face shouting his orders, wild to bring a stop to things then we were all of us standing there panting, our cold sweat pouring down exhausted faces, our eyes glittering, our legs trembling, just like you would see dogs do after they had been killing lambs.


So how does Barry imagine a starving detested Irishman’s views of what was happening to the Indians:


The padre made a huge prayer out in the open and the whole town went down on its knees right there and praised the lord. this was the section of humanity favoured in that place, the indians had no place no more there, their tickets of passage were rescinded and the bailiffs of god had took back the papers for their souls. I did feel a seeping tincture of sadness for them I did feel some strange toiling seeping sadness for them, seven hours off buried in their pits….. there weren’t no padre praying in exhaltation for them they were the boys with the loosing hand….


The second great war McNulty and John Cole are witness to is of course the civil war, they sign up expecting like many others a short war and after initial victories they begin to understand how pernicious a civil war can be when like fight against like, often with no understanding of why as illustrated below:


The captains give the order to fire and the thousand muskets give voice and fling their rounds of shot towards those walking demons, Johnny reb with his skinny legs and his butternut rags and all he thinks about and thinks good carried under hats of all descriptions. South don’t got  uniforms, grits or oftentimes shoes, half of these fierce looking bastards have bare feet, could be the denizens of a Sligo slum house, goddammit probably are some of them. On they come, I can see the regimental banners now better, and this damn one at centre coming on has shamrocks and harps, just like ours. Usual crazy fucking war..


Overwhelmed in battle, they are ordered to surrender and near starve to death in captivity, McNulty remarks that it wasn’t because they were ill treated, their captors had no food either, the crops had been distroyed during the war.

The book kept me interested throughout and the voice of McNulty rang true to me.

First Published in English as “Days Without End” in 2017 by Faber & Faber.
Translated into French by Laetitia Devaux and published as “Des Jours Sans Fin” by Joëlle Losfeld in 2018

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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

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

Alan Hollinghurst ‘The Sparsholt Affair’


“The evening when we first heard Sparsholt’s name seems the best place to start this little memoir. We were up in my rooms, talking about the club. Peter Goyle, the painter, was there, and Charlie Farmonger and Evert Dax.3B22C1AF-0CA2-4A17-8359-8E3F426D9F8AA sort of vote had taken place, and I emerged as the secretary, I was the oldest by a year and exempt from service”


Alan Hollinghurst’s novel chronicles gay life in a number of distinct episodes in England through two generations of the Sparsholt family. The book begins at the outset of the second world war at Oxford university illustrated at the first meeting of the memoir club in the opening quote where Goyle, Dax and the narrator of the first time period, Julian Green are are present and we hear of Sparsholt, a young freshman keen on rowing coming from an engineering family in Warwickshire with no real interest in books and only really filling in time before he is called up and seems so out of place with the upper class gays in the club:


“Oh, yes, him,” Evert said, as the source of the shadow moved slowly into view, a figure in a gleaming singlet, steadily lifting and lowering a pair of hand-weights. He did this with no apparent effort – but of course it was hard to tell from this distance, from which he showed, in this square of light, as massive and abstracted, as if shaped from light himself. Peter put his hand on my arm.
“My dear” he said, “I seem to have found my new model.” At which Evert made a little gasp, and looked at him furiously for a second.


Sparsholt is then indeed painted by Peter Goyle, a nude torso which is after Goyle’s death in the war later obtained by Dax. In this well described 1940.s Oxford it is also clear that Sparsholt is a more nuanced charachter than he may first seem and that gays even in these times should not be stereotyped.

In the second time sequence, we follow David Sparsholt’s family on a family holiday in the 60’s, a little before the actual Sparsholt affair, where we see that he has married his girlfriend from before his Oxford years, Connie, has a family but still prefers the company of his friend, Clifford, who is on holiday with his wife nearby, nothing is overt here, homosexuality is afterall still illegal. We are also introduced to his son, Johnny the narrator of the remainder of the book as he suspects nothing of his father but is himself discovering his own sexual tendancies in his early teens as he is infatuated with Bastien his French exchange student.

The second part of the book follows Johnny through his life in London as he first meets Evert Dax and then the rest of the Memoire club, this happens after the Sparsholt affair, a scandal involving his father, and follows Johnny as he matures and the grows older.

First Published in English as “The Sparsholt Affair” in 2017 by Picador.

Donald Ray Pollock ‘The Heavenly Table’


—In 1917, just as another hellish August was starting to come to an end along the border that divides Georgia and Alabama, Pearl Jewett awakened his sons before dawn one morning with a guttural bark that sounded more animal than man. The three young men arose silently from their particular corners of the one-room shack and pulled on their filthy clothes, still damp with the sweat of yesterday’s labors. A mangy rat covered with scabs scuttled up the rock chimney, knocking bits of mortar into the cold grate. Moonlight funneled through gaps in the chinked log walls and lay in thin milky ribbons across the red dirt floor. With their heads nearly touching the low ceiling, they gathered around the center of the room for breakfast, and Pearl handed them each a bland wad of flour and water fried last night in a dollop of leftover fat. There would be no more to eat until evening, when they would all get a share of the sick hog they had butchered in the spring, along with a mash of boiled spuds and wild greens scooped onto dented tin plates with a hand that was never clean from a pot that was never washed. Except for the occasional rain, every day was the same.


Following on from my earlier read, 3 years ago, ‘The Devil All of the Time’, I was ready for my next journey with Donald Ray Pollock, this time mostly into the Kentucky-Ohio area around the time of the entry of the US into the First World War. These were desperate times for sharecroppers as the books opening paragraph, and my opening quote illustrates. The story is of desperate men, of the ever presence and devastation of alcohol and of a general feeling of lawlessness, Pollock weaves in for good measure a psychopathic killer and a story of both prostitution and homosexual activity around an army camp at Mead.

The main characters in the book, Cane, Cob and Chimney Jewett, on the death of their domineering father decide to steel horses from the man that was exploiting them, Major Tardweller, but things go badly wrong  and the brothers start on a path of no return as outlaws. Pollock weaves in here ‘The Life and Times of Bloody Bill Bucket’,  The only book they had ever poessed  which Cane had read them over and over until they could recite whole sections of the book, as they get into difficult situations, they identify with Bloody Bill whilst at the same time only just understanding that it is a fiction and not a real story. The brothers have an aim as they flee, they will escape with their gains from robbing banks to Canada, but they have absolutely no idea of where Canada is.

Amongst the characters Pollock serves us up are Ellsworth and Eula Fiddler who are swindled out of their savings by a man that sells them cattle in a field that don’t belong to him, and as their son runs away, maybe to join the army and fight the Germans, it becomes clear that the have absolutely no idea where Germany could be. There is Sugar, a black man who lives to drink and stumbles from desperate situation to desperate situation as amongst other things he is tied up and thrown over a bridge into the Ohio river. Then there is the army lieutenant Bovard, with ideals of war similar to those of the ancient Greeks he has read about as he studied classics, discovering drugs and the fact he is gay and finally the psychopath, Pollard, who tortures and cuts up strangers before throwing their remains into the Ohio river.

In this desperate book, full of dry humour, Pollock brings together all of these stories into a crescendo. This book is crammed with the sort of details that hold the reader’s attention and is as good as his excellent ‘Devil All of the Time’. I strongly recommend this book to anyone who hasn’t yet discovered Donald Ray Pollock.

First published in English as ‘The Heavenly Table’ by Harvill Secker in 2016