Tag Archives: Fiction

For the Joy of Reading: Pere Goriot

Pere Goriot is one of the masterpieces of European literature.   It is about an old man, Pere Goriot, and his two selfish daughters, Anastasie and Delphine.   Both has used his fortune as a springboard to marry into the aristocracy and milch him dry in the process.   The story is seen through the eyes of Rastignac, a young student, who forms an attachment with Delphine.   That is all that I am going to tell you about the plot, because you should read the book for yourselves.

There are, however, some things that are noticeable.   None of the female characters are particularly likeable, and the pursuit of money seems to be a great part of their motivation.   That is certainly the case with Anastasie and Delphine and to a lesser extent, in that she has fewer opportunities, of Madame Vauquer, who owns the boarding house where Goriot and Rastignac live.   It has to be said that the men are not particularly likeable either, although the reader does feel sympathy for Goriot and Rastignac.   This reflects Balzac’s view of Parisian society post-Waterloo.   To say that Balzac was not enamoured of it does not really indicate the sheer scale of his dislike.

Another interesting character is Vautrin, another lodger at Madame Vauquer’s house.   He is undoubtedly a villain, and has a habit of taking handsome young men as his protégé and, indeed, was prepared to go to prison so that one of his proteges could escape such a fate.   Balzac does not use the word homosexual but it is the clear inference from the storyline.   Such things, of course, could only be hinted at in a nineteenth century novel, and only obliquely at that, because the novel-buying public would have been appalled, and it would have been a scandal.   It is interesting to see how things have changed since Balzac was writing.

I am not going to say anything more.   Balzac does not need me to promote him.   If you have not read this novel, then you should.   It is as simple as that.

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For the Joy of Reading: The Mabinogion

Why am I reviewing a book that was first written down over a thousand years ago, and the stories contained in it are much older than that. It is the source of the Arthurian Romances of European literature. It has inspired authors from Chretien de Troyes and Thomas Malory, through to “The Idylls of the King” by Alfred Lord Tennyson and modern authors such as Alan Garner, Susan Cooper and JRR Tolkien. It is poetic and lyrical, full of adventures, of monsters, witches and necromancers, heroes and villains, and all that you would expect in stories that are a metaphor for life and death.
It was first translated from the Welsh by Lady Charlotte Guest in the nineteenth century, and various translations have been available ever since. This is the Oxford World Classics translation by Sioned Davies and, as far as I can tell, it is excellent.
There is one point that I have to make. You do not have to be able to pronounce the title, the names or the place-names mentioned in this book. I can hear Cymricists throughout the world howling in displeasure at this assertion. But you are reading this book, not reciting it and so the correct pronunciation does not matter. Yes, you will lose some of the beauty of the language, but what does it matter if you cannot pronounce Bendigaidfran (Bend-ee-guide-vran)? There will be one area of enormous difficulty – the name list in Culhwch and Olwen, but you could even ski that as, if you are not a Welsh speaker, you have very little hope of achieving the correct sonorous pronunciation.
So, what are these stories about? They are the tales of heroes. There is the story of the meeting of Pwyll with the King of the Otherworld, and how this leads to his meeting and marriage to Rhiannon and the birth of their son, Pryderi. There is the story of Bendigaidfran’s invasion and return from Ireland, and of how his head comes to be buried in London for the protection of the Island of the Mighty (Ynys Prydein). There is the story of the enchantment of Pryderi and his mother, Rhiannon, and how they are released. There is the story of how Gwydion gains a wife, Blodeuedd, for Lleu Llaw Gyffes, despite the curse of Gwydion’s sister, Aranrhod, which results in the tragedy that is the basis of Alan Garner’s “The Owl Service”. And so, it goes on with the seven subsequent stories, which are about Arthur, his knights and his court.
These are magnificent stories and this is a very readable translation. The fact that they were originally written in one of the less well-known European languages is no reason to deprive yourself of the richness of these stories. Wallow in them and enjoy them.

For the Joy of Reading: Warrior Daughter

This book has been sitting in my “To Read” pile for some time and, I am ashamed to say, that it was the recent death of the author that prompted me to tread it. That is a shame because it is an excellent book.
It is about Skaaha, the Gaelic, possibly Pictish, woman warrior of Irish mythology. I should explain immediately that the spellings used by Janet Paisley are anglicised to help her readers to be able to pronounce the names and the Gaelic spelling, as written down by Irish monks a thousand years after the possible events is Sgathach or Scathach. Her sister’s name, Eefay is really spelled Aoife, and the same applies to many of the names of the other characters in the book. The only name that we know to be real is Cartimandua, but that is a Latinised version of a Celtic, possibly proto-Welsh, name. There is no evidence that Skaaha actually existed apart from the mythological poems of the Ulster Cycle But that is the case with all pre-Roman Celtic societies. Celtic society was not literate. It did not produce written records.
But this does not matter. This is not a history. It is a work of literary imagination, a story, a prose poem, an entertainment. It is something in which we know that the Celts excelled. Their enemies, the Romans, tell us this. Also, there is the evidence that two of the greatest Latin stylists, Virgil and Livy, came from Gallia Cisalpina, the Celtic lands along the Po Valley, south of the Alps. We do not necessarily have to believe everything that the Romans allege about Celtic drunkenness and licentiousness, as this was the Roman excuse for conquest, bringing “civilisation” to savages. It is, however, reasonable to assume that they had a totally different culture to that of the Romans.
This is the basis from which Janet Paisley starts. She creates a wholly believable culture in which women could be warriors or blacksmiths, in which they shared husbands, in which marriage was not for life, and in which women were held in high repute. We know this because Cartimandua was the Queen-Regnant of the Brigantes at the time of the Roman invasion, and Tacitus tell us that it was the public whipping of Queen Boudicca of the Iceni, and the rape of her daughters that led to the revolt that nearly drove the Romans from Britain. Although this is not a history, it does use what historical evidence is available to make sure that the story is believable.
And what a story it is. It is straightforward adventure thriller. Will Skaaha and Eefay survive the machinations of the villainous Queen Mara? Will the chief Druid, Suli, an old blind woman be able to guide Skaaha through the perils surrounding her? Will Skaaha sleep with Ruan the Druid or Fion the warrior? Or both? Will the enemy raids along the coast be successful? Or will Skaaha fight them off? It is an exciting tale, and you do care about what happens to the protagonists.
But it is also a tale about Celtic mythology, about the celebration of the great festivals of Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnasa (spelled Lunasa in the book) and Samhain (spelled Sowen). Of course, we have no idea how these festivals were celebrated. We can guess that Beltane was a fire festival because “tan” means fire in Welsh and we know the times of year at which they were celebrated. Indeed, we still celebrate May Day (Beltane), Lughnasa (Lammas), Samhain (Hallowe’en) and Imbolc (Winter Solstice) to this day. We do not know what happened even though the Romans tell us that they got drunk and had sex. Janet Paisley creates a believable spirituality for these festivals. That, in itself, is remarkable.
I do have some quibbles. In one scene, an eagle catches a rabbit in its claws. A hare would be plausible, but a rabbit in pre-Roman Britain is simply inaccurate. There are arguments about whether it was the Romans who introduced rabbits to Britain after the conquest of 43AD or the Normans after 1066, but it does not matter. There were no rabbits in Britain at the time that the story is set.
My other quibble is that Janet Paisley says, in the Author’s Note, at the end of the book that these islands were called Alba (Scotland) or Albion (England). She ignores the Welsh word Prydein completely although this is clearly the word from which the Romans derived the name of their province, Britannia. As a Welshman, I find it rather tiresome and annoying to be written out of our history, our shared history, in this way. There is clear evidence that Welsh was spoken in Scotland. Place names using the word Aber (confluence) give it away, as in Aberdeen, Aberfeldy, Aberlour and Abertay, give that away. So does the use of the word Strath for valley. The Welsh word is Ystrad, and refers to a wide valley.
None of this distracts from the sheer pleasure of reading this book, and that is exactly what you should do.

For the Joy of Reading: The List

If anyone is going to write a novel based on the South African security services during apartheid and since the first democratic elections in 1994, Barry Gilder is a very good candidate. He spent years working for the ANC Intelligence services, and then in the amalgamated intelligence service of the newly-elected Government of National Unity under President Mandela. This is a man who knows what he is talking about. And he is very clear in his Author’s Note: “This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner.”
This is true. The whole story is based on a premise, a rumour which, as far as I am aware has never been proved. It is said that President Nelson Mandela was given a list, by the National Intelligence Service (the South African equivalent of MI5) naming all the apartheid agents in the ANC. It is also alleged that President Mandela was so magnanimous that he did nothing with the list, if it existed. If this is true, it would be for the very good reason that the source was tainted and that none of the information could be trusted. The list, if it exists, would have been written with the intention of sowing distrust and destroying reputations.
It is also true that the “Sunset Clauses” left dedicated supporters of apartheid in post, and in roles where they could do damage. There is no doubt in my mind, as a long-standing anti-apartheid campaigner who has visited South African many times since the ANC Solidarity Conference in 1993, that this has been happening. One of the key chapters in the book, Chapter 25, describes Mandela arriving at the Carlton Hotel in Johannesburg to acknowledge the ANC Victory in the first democratic election in South African history. He talked about the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP)and was quite clear that no-one could participate in the Government of National Unity if they were opposed to that plan. I remember this very well. I was there. It was a very sobering moment. That very evening, I had been arguing with ANC friends that they would have to defend the RDP because it was all that they had got, and that it would be attacked from the very outset. It was. The attack came from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund and the RDP was watered down to the Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) plan, and that also proved too radical.
So, the premise of this book is that old, retired, loyal ANC members from the Intelligence Services are asked to investigate the existence of the List, and come across some terrifying information about how the tentacles of the apartheid state have reached into the new democratic regime.
The story is carried along by the sympathetic characters that we meet and, indeed, it is supposed to be written by Jerry Whitehead, an ANC intelligence officer who rose to be Deputy Director General of the post-apartheid intelligence service. I am tempted to imagine this Jerry Whitehead as the Barry Gilder character, if only for his intimate knowledge of Kilburn, but the caveats of the author, quoted above, have to be born in mind. It would be wrong to seek to identify each character with a real person, and given the denouement we can only hope that this is not the case.
This is a story that will have chills running up and down your spine. Gilder shows how easy it is to entrap someone, to corrupt them. There is a chilling scene where Gilder shows the apartheid security police relaxing at a braai (barbecue) and I know that the attitudes of white South African right-wings males have not changed. I have sat through braais like that. Gilder shows that the British security police were keeping a watchful eye, both to ensure that nothing untoward happened and to collaborate with their anti-communist allies in the South African security. He shows that agents in the National Intelligence Service were planning for change because it was obvious that apartheid was unsustainable. The system had to go but white privilege had to be maintained. This is what is at the heart of the planning by Otto Becker, in the book. And I am sure that it was at the heart of the planning of many white South African bureaucrats in the years of transition from the mid-1980s to the years following the 1994 elections.
Whilst this is a novel, it dissects a frightening truth. This is a truly disturbing story.
I have one quibble. Salusbury Road in Kilburn is not mis-spelled. It is not named after Salisbury, but rather after the Salusbury family, Welsh gentry who were cousins by marriage of Elizabeth Tudor. Katheryn, Lady Salusbury, was the daughter of Sir Roland Velville, the only illegitimate child of Henry VII. She was the richest heiress in Wales and her money was used to acquire lands in, I believe, Kilburn. This matters because it is the kind of mistake that an intelligence officer should not make. The assumption about the mis-spelling however is that of Jerry Whitehead not Barry Gilder.
This is an extraordinary book, a revelation. Please God, do not let it come true.

For the Joy of Reading: House of Stone

Gukurahundi is not a word that is known in this country, at least not in the way that we know the words Holocaust or Genocide or Massacre. It is, however, a seminal event in the history of Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe. It was when Robert Mugabe sent the fifth brigade of the Zimbabwe Army, a brigade that had been trained by the North Koreans, into the area around Bulawayo and murdered thousands of his political opponents in the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU). It was an event that set Zimbabwe along a path of repression from the mis-1980s until last year when Mugabe was forcibly removed from power. It is an event that stills hangs its shadow over Zimbabwe. It is an event that is central to this book, although the book is not set in the actual time of the massacres. It is set in the present day, looking at how Zimbabwe and particularly the people around Bulawayo are dealing with the consequences of what happened.

Bukhosi has gone missing. His parents, Abed and Agnes, begin to look for him. It gives nothing away to say that Bukhosi has fallen a victim to those opposed to his secessionist politics. This is made clear from the start. It is just that Abed and Agnes do not realise this, and do not look in the right places. What follows is a story of deception, of power plays and of people struggling to do the right thing, if only for themselves.

To describe the main character as manipulative gives no real idea of how self-serving and self-obsessed he actually is. His whole purpose is to make sure that his life is a comfortable as it possibly can be, even if that means lying about the whereabouts of Bukhosi, which he does with consummate skill.

I will not say any more about the plot. Let us look at the language. There is no doubt that Novuyo Rosa Tshuma is a skilled writer. She uses language that sweeps you along with the story, and she never lets you forget that Gukurahundi is the underlying theme of the story, the motor on which everything else depends.

There is one difficulty with the language. There is no glossary for the Ndebele words that are peppered throughout the tale. This was not a problem for me because I have spent a considerable amount of my life around the offices of the Anti-Apartheid Movement, and I know what words like bhundu (the sticks) and mfana (boy) mean. Most people will not have a clue, and that will make it difficult for them to understand some parts of the book. This, however, is a fault of the publisher and not of the author. It would not have been difficult to provide a glossary, and it should have been done.

Apart from that, however, anyone who wants to understand what is happening in modern Zimbabwe, or even modern Africa, should read this book. It will give you an insight that others will not have.

For the Joy of Reading: Gutter 18

Listen do you want to know a secret. Gutter Magazine is an essential read, especially if you are a librarian or a bookseller, and you want to know who the up and coming voices are in Scottish Literature. Of course, this assumes that you have not outsourced your purchasing so that you can cut costs to the bare minimum, and reduce the number of professional staff that are employed in your outlets. Gutter has survived the tribulations of the last year or so, and it has produced a wonderful issue for Autumn 2018, timed to appear at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, and coupled with the Freedom Papers, sponsored by the Festival, to celebrate the centenary of women getting the vote in the UK and the birth of Nelson Mandela.
All you have to do is look at the content. There is an interview with Louise Welsh on the art of writing crime stories, showing that crime novels are an examination of the human psyche, and that they are much more than a Cluedo-type mystery. There is a story by Ngugi wa Thiong’o, ostensibly about body parts deciding to co-operate for the greater good, but really about how the individual cannot function without the community, the African concept of ubuntu. This stories has been translated into Shetlandic and English from Gikuyu. I would recommend reading the Shetlandic first, not because I can really understand it because you can hear it rolling off the tongue.
William Letford has written a short story that is essentially about how we, as a society, deal with manhood and masculinity, and how they are not the same thing. William Letford is a poet that I came across through Gutter and the Discombobulate evenings at the Arches in Glasgow. All I can say about him is that he is brilliant and if you have not read his poetry collections, Bevel and Dirt, then you have a treat in store. And that is something that can also be said about Gutter.
Then there is the poetry. These are names that are worth discovering: Penny Boxall, David Hale, Bridget Khursheed, Lavry Butler, Charles Lang, David Ross Linklater, Jay Whittaker, Kevin Williamson, Ross Wilson, Hamish Scott, Sara Clark, Maria Sledmore, Iona Lee, Lucy Cathcart Froden, Rosa Campbell, Hannah Van Hove, Vahni Capildeo, Caroline Hume, Ingrid Grieve, Barbara Johnston and that old favourite, Anonymous. All of these will be names worth watching out for. If publishers have any sense, all of these will be names worth nurturing. I presume that the same can be said for Marcas Mac an Tuairneir, but I do not know because this poem is in Gaelic, and I cannot read it.
Even the reviews tell you what to look out for. You do not have to agree with them. Indeed, how can you if you have not read the books, but if a book is reviewed in Gutter then that is a good indication that it is worth reading.
Gutter Magazine is a phenomenon. Just be glad that it has survived the last year. Read it. Make sure that it survives to continue promoting good Scottish literature. Libraries should buy it, if only for their purchasing staff. Readers should read it so they know the names to look out for.
If you have not read Gutter, have never come across it, and you love books, then this is a treat and you should wallow in it.

For the Joy of Reading: Smoke and Ashes

Sam Wyndham and Surrender-Not (Surindranath) Banerjee are about to have their third adventure.   It is coming to the end of 1921 in Calcutta (as it then was) and Gandhi has called on the British to “Quit India” by the end of the year.   Time is running out and the situation is getting tense.   We, of course, know what Sam and Surrender-Not cannot which is that the British will not quit India for another 27 years.   To make matters worse, and despite the tension, the Prince of Wales is due to visit the city for Christmas.   So the scene is set for a major demonstration and a confrontation between the British imperialists and the Indian nationalists.

Sam Wyndham has also become increasingly addicted to opium, frequently visiting the opium dens in Tangra.   This is not wise for a captain in the British Imperial Police.   The story begins with Sam fleeing a raid by the Vice Squad across the roof, and stumbling across a mutilated Chinese male corpse.   Sam does not stop to investigate, but the next day he is assigned a murder case in which a woman has been similarly mutilated.   So we are launched on a convoluted murder mystery that becomes entangled in the politics of the Raj, and in Sam’s personal life, with a bewildered Surrender-Not doing his best to help Sam through all his difficulties.

That is enough about the plot, or at least about the murders that form the engine for the plot.   There is also the matter of the deft and convincing way in which Abir Mukherjee weaves real historical characters into the plot.   Gandhi is mentioned but it is Chitta-Ranjan Das, known as the Deshbandhu (the friend of the nation), his deputy Subash Bose and of course the Prince of Wales, around whom the story revolves.   It is the visit of the Prince of Wales to Calcutta that gives the story the possibility of going horribly wrong.   Mukherjee manages to maintain that tension although we know that the Prince of Wales went on to become Edward VIII and to abdicate, so he could not possibly have been assassinated in Calcutta in 1921.

There are also the recurring characters throughout the three books.   There is Lord Taggart, the Commissioner of Police.   I have no idea if there was a real Lord Taggart, but I just love the idea of a Mark McManus figure running the Calcutta police in the 1920s.   We do not get the iconic line “There’s been a murder” but it lurks there in the background of our mind.   There is the pipe-smoking Major Dawson, the head of the security police who is more of a Dr Watson figure than Sherlock Holmes, but who is certainly not a man that you would want to cross.   There is Annie, the Anglo-Indian woman, to whom Sam is attracted without much hope of success, and of course there is Sam and Surrender-Not, who are a sort of Laurel and Hardy partnership, but intelligent, and up to their necks in corpses.

“Smoke and Ashes” is a joy to read because Abir Mukherjee has researched and knows the historical background, has a firm grasp of place and in Sam and Surrender-Not gives you believable characters that you care about.   He also writes a damn fine murder mystery