From the moment Peirene announced the series of the small epic, I was worried. Not that I doubted the quality of the offerings for a moment. The nymph does have impeccable taste. My concern stemmed from the fact that my least favourite Peirene Press title is the novella-sized Stone in A Landslide. What did I write in that review: “Too short for its scope ….. so much to tell, so little space ….. I always felt like an observer looking in, never absorbed”. For this reader the 2012 series was fraught with danger and I held off and held off some more – despite rave reviews for all 3 in the blogosphere. Then I decided this read had to be done, particularly if I was to be up-to-date before the really promising 2013 Turning Point series hits the shelves. Deep breathe – here we go – in reverse order of publication, for reasons that will become clear …..
Winner of the Prix des Auditeurs de La Radio Suisse Romande
As an object, this is undoubtedly the most beautiful book that Peirene has produced. It tells of the life of the influential Chinese painter, Bada Shanren, and contains a number of his paintings. Bada Shanren began life as Zhu Da, a prince of the Ming Dynasty. Unfortunately at the end of the Ming and the beginning of the Qing dynasty. Turbulent times and he had to flee for his life to a Buddhist monastery, leaving behind his wife and young son – without it appears a second thought as to their safety. 40 years later, when the Qing dynasty is no longer as insecure and having learned that his wife and son have died (no details are given) he leaves the monastery to take a second wife because he feels the need to preserve his line. The second marriage is not a happy one (scant detail is given) but it is at this time that he begins to live the life of an artist using the skills taught him in the monastery.
You can tell from the above that I wasn’t concentrating of the focus of Weihe’s work – i.e the development of Bada Shanren’s career and almost philosophical relationship with his brushes and ink. This story is told in beautiful lyrical prose, I admit, but I was more interested in his failed human relationships and his alleged madness. These gaps were bound to frustrate me. I accept that condensing the 80 year life of Bada Shanren into 107 pages requires a strict scoping exercise. Weihe, for instance, does not even mention Bada Shanren’s poetry. The result, however, is an episodic structure in 51 small chapters and a work that makes me want to repeat my review of Peirene No 2.
Winner of the 2009 Danske Banks Litteraturpris
Having established that I don’t like narrative gaps, Pia Juul’s book was bound to drive me demented, wasn’t it? And yet ….
Right at the start – page 3 to be exact – Halland’s corpse is found in the street. He has been shot and his partner of 10 years, Bess, is initially accused by a neighbour of the crime. The story is narrated by Bess, who behaves very strangely. But then she always has – leaving her husband for Halland, after a 5-minute meeting in a bookshop. Her relationship with Halland never seeming to be worth the price of the resulting estrangement from her teenage daughter. After Halland’s death Bess’s grief for her daughter blends seemlessly into her grief for Halland – or does it? People and details from Halland’s past begin to emerge which could lead to a revision of the 10 years she has spent with him. Bess seems to be in denial. Then, people from her past reappear, seemingly out of nowhere, with motivations that appear flimsy – at least to me.
The question is how far can we believe Bess. She’s as unreliable as unreliable goes. She even tells us so and it’s a supreme irony that I believe her ….
Actually there’s a great deal that I haven’t mentioned. How could I possibly include everything? Nonetheless there is something that I haven’t mentioned that I must have left out on purpose.
The job of the reader is to work out what that something is and let’s say that because the gaps in Bess’s story are huge there’s plenty of room for manoeuver. This could be very frustrating, particularly if you wanted an answer to the whodunnit, which the author refuses to supply. Despite this, I’m pretty clear about what I think happened, though not so clear about why I think that way.
Nothing like sibling rivalry to conjure up a good old-fashioned family feud. Cherchez la femme and even more originally, cherchez le cheval! Add the Swedish-Russian war during which the brothers fought on opposing sides to create a plethora of unresolved grievance, festering and lying in ambush of some future time.
That time appears to be 1809 when, following the war, both brothers return to the farmstead on which they were raised. It is winter. The landscape is frozen and the atmosphere is just as icy.
The war has been waged, but here we may yet have corpses, so speaks the first of 7 first-person narrators. 7 narrators in a 115 page novella – it could get confusing but it doesn’t. Firstly there are signifiers whenever the narrator changes and secondly, each narrator has a distinct voice and point of view. Revelation upon revelation follows until it is clear that the problems I outlined above are the least of this family’s problems. There are further secrets hidden in the past and even greater betrayals to come. The question is from which direction? I’ll be honest, it took me by surprise, even though as I skim through the text again, the clues are there.
The moody, dark, brooding, and sometimes earthy language brings the drama right off the page. Twists and turns aplenty and yet it never feels rushed. Sahlberg even has time to weave in some wonderful symbolism – the decrepit house, a visual representation of the state of the family for instance. The Brothers has been described as Shakespearian and I heartily agree. More importantly there are no narrative gaps, and that makes this the most absorbing and satisfying read of the series.