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Ballad of the Hanged Men by François Villon , (translated by Richard Wilbur)

O brother men who after us remain,
Do not look coldly on the scene you view,
For if you pity wretchedness and pain,
God will the more incline to pity you.
You see us hang here, half a dozen who
Indulged the flesh in every liberty
Till it was pecked and rotted, as you see,
And these our bones to dust and ashes fall.
Let no one mock our sorry company,
But pray to God that He forgive us all.

If we have called you brothers, don’t disdain
The appellation, though alas it’s true
That not all men are equal as to brain,
And that our crimes and blunders were not few.
Commend us, now that we are dead, unto
The Virgin Mary’s son, in hopes that He
Will not be sparing of His clemency,
But save our souls, which Satan would enthrall.
We’re dead now, brothers; show your charity,
And pray to God that He forgive us all.

We have been rinsed and laundered by the rain,
And by the sunlight dried and blackened too.
Magpie and crow have plucked our eyeballs twain
And cropped our eyebrows and the beards we grew.
Nor have we any rest at all, for to
And fro we sway at the wind’s fantasy,
Which has no object, yet would have us be
(Pitted like thimbles) at its beck and call.
Do not aspire to our fraternity,
But pray to God that He forgive us all.
Prince Jesus, we implore Your Majesty
To spare us Hell’s distress and obloquy;
We want no part of what may there befall.
And, mortal men, let’s have no mockery,
But pray to God that He forgive us all.

Such is the power and sincerity of those words that you can tell François Villon (1431-unknown) was convinced that this would be his fate. For not only was/is he the best known French poet of the late middle ages, he was a criminal, sentenced to death in 1461.  In 1463 the sentence was commuted to banishment and, thereafter, he disappeared from view.

brotherhood of Book Hunters

Translated from French by Howard Curtis

Such mysteries are inspirational to historical novelists and Jerusalmy “solves” this one with a conspiracy involving Louis XI, the Bishop of Paris, German bookmakers, secret Jewish societies, corrupt monks, the Inquisition, a double-agent slave girl and a French poet on an adventure that turns him into a kind of medieval Indiana Jones.

It starts reasonably enough,  The condemned Villon is in prison when he is visited by the Bishop of Paris, with a message from the King. In return for his freedom he is to persuade the German bookmaker, Johannes Fust, to set up shop in Paris.  France has no printing press of its own and the King wants that to end.  Printing presses in those days conferred power on those who controlled their output and a way of weakening the power of the Vatican.  So Villon, a man of letters, is to entice Just to Paris with the rare and forbidden books that the King will put at his disposal.

If only it were that easy.

Because in the days when knowledge was power and just beginning to reach the common man thanks to that new-fangled invention, the printing press, those books had powerful enemies. Soon Villon  and his fellow brigand, Colin, are embroiled in plot and counterplot and danger to life and limb as they trek across to the Holy Land to bring more of the contraband to France.  There they must prove themselves to the secretive Brotherhood of Book Hunters, an organisation with the mission to preserve the world’s knowledge by rescuing ancient books and manuscripts from the hands of those who would destroy them.

I’m not going to pretend that I kept up with the numerous twists and turns of the plot.  I just went along for the ride.  I’m not going to pretend that the writing is brilliant. Too much narrative, not enough dialogue but then, in mitigation, there was an awful lot of ground to cover.  (France, The Middle East with diversions to Italy.)  I can’t claim to know whether The Brotherhood of Book Hunters is/was real.  There must be something in Jerusalmy’s theory because how else have ancient, and to the Inquisition heretical texts survived?  Perhaps the Brotherhood is an amalgam of all the courageous individuals in history who have braved the wrath of the establishment to preserve mankind’s intellectual heritage?

I did enjoy the warts and all characterisation of Villon and his fellow Coquillard, Colin;  heroes neither but scoundrels whose most pressing challenge is to avoid snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.  I lapped up the intrigue, the journey into the past and Jerusalmy’s imagination, and I absolutely revelled in the sheer love of books and learning that infuses these pages.

Recommended for fellow bookworms.

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It seems as though I need cheering up – I’ve read more comedy this year than anything else.  Hence the second post in succession about comic novels; both of these set in Scotland, one extremely well-known, the other, not so much, but it should be.

Compton MacKenzie’s classic Whisky Galore is perfect for those long dark nights of winter: curled up with a suitable accompaniment.  (It must be the not so subliminal message!). The edition from Birlinn has a great dust jacket too!  Everyone in that whisky bottle seems to be having a great time.

One February morning in 1941, a cargo ship carrying hundreds of thousands of bottles of whisky ran aground a few sea-miles north of Compton MacKenzie’s home on the Hebridean island of Barra.  The islanders rushed to the rescue – the ship’s crew were safe, but the precious cargo? From such stuff was this spirited classic novel born.

Set in the same time frame as the historical incident, whisky is noted by its absence in the first half of the novel.  It is a strictly rationed substance as most of Scotland’s output was reserved for export to provide funds for the war.  The locals are disgruntled – one dram a day is their allowance, soon reduced further to one dram every two days,  The ration is distributed by the local landlord with draconian efficiency.  In addition, two couples wish to marry but cannot proceed to their nuptials without the Scottish nectar to oil the necessary ceremonies.

So when the ship is grounded and the rescue operation mounted ….the islanders are very happy … Or would be if the pesky customs and excise and home guard folk would leave them (and their booty) in peace.

MacKenzie (not a Scot, an Englishman and founder of the SNP) left Barra for England in 1944 and wrote this novel as a homage to the Hebrides in 1946.  His love for the islands, its people and their language is clear. The introduction to this volume identifies those characters who were modelled on the larger than life islanders of MacKenzie’s acquaintance.  So too other plot elements such as the Presbyterian/Catholic divide and rivalries of the Outer Hebrides, transposed without malice onto his two fictional islands: Great and Little Todday.  And the incomprehensibilty of the local lingo to foreign (English) ears.

“… really beautiful stuff.  You’ll just think you’re sippng cream.  Really a babe in arms would hardly know it was whisky. Uisge beatha.  Water of Life!” 

“That’s garlic, I suppose.”

“Ay, Gaelic it is.  What a pity you don’t know our glorious language.”

“Say that again, will you, Father Macalister’

Uisge beatha.”

“I see. Something like a sneeze and a yawn,” said Mrs Odd.

Nothing like the novel, I hasten to add.

Love, Revenge, Buttered SconesSwitching now from the west to the east of Scotland and Inverness,  Bobby Darbyshire’s Love, Revenge and Buttered Scones promises a treat that is as delicious as it sounds.  Particularly if you like the idea of a book group and an author event with unforeseen consequences.

Henry Jennings is Marjorie MacPherson’s biggest fan.  Having bombarded her with fan mail and love letters over the years, she invites him to a very special event at Inverness Library.  He decides to travel up from London to attend.  Things begin to go awry on the train – he spots his estranged younger brother and would-be poet, Peter, and is horrified when he also disembarks at Inverness.

He makes his way to the library, as does Peter.  Chaos ensures as he manages to avoid his brother, meets a lovely librarian, named Fiona (honestly, all Fionas are lovely), bumps into a Spanish lady called Elena and, of course, encounters Marjorie MacPherson, who surprises him in a way he cannot handle. One snowstorm, and a day later, a wounded Henry Jennings grabs his opportunity to flee Aberdeen, accompanying Elena to The Loch Craggan hotel to interview the reclusive author, Angus Urquhart. He is surprised to find Fiona is driving them there and horrified that Peter is already sitting in the front seat!

Nor is that the only unpleasant surprise for Henry because Marjorie MacPherson turns up at the hotel as well!  Poor man: chagrined beyond all measure, tormented by the cruel wit of his brother, can the new ladies in his life provide comfort?  What is about the old goat, Angus, who bounds up and down the mountains as sure footedly as a goat,  that binds Peter, Fiona and Elena together?  Who will find love, who revenge and who will settle for buttered scones?

I have no notes/no quotes to refer to because I was too busy turning the pages of this fantastic farce with melancholic undertones.  Embellished with loneliness, vanity, revenge, sexual politics and a chef who bakes buttered scones to die for!  Together with surprising happy endings for all.  The plot is, of course, slightly unfeasible, but who cares?

I read this novel as part of #tbr20.  My only regret is that it sat unloved in the TBR for nigh on 5 years before I did so.

Whisky Galore 4stars.GIF / Love, Revenge and Buttered Scones 4stars.GIF

 

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I decided long before I opened the first page of Ishiguro’s latest, that I would not be reviewing it. The blogosphere will be awash with reviews I decided. Instead would tweet my reactions and then consolidate the tweets to tell the story. Let us begin ….

And there you have it. An experiment that didn’t work too well, because after a first chapter of much promise, I didn’t want my next tweet to be “Oh dear.  It’s gone off the boil.” 

And the temperature never rose again.  I had intended to devour the book in two sittings in time for Ishiguro’s Edinburgh event, but couldn’t summon up the enthusiasm. I made it to page 148, by which time Ishiguro’s job was to persuade me to finish…

The blogosphere has been awash with details of Ishiguro’s very comprehensive book tour and insights into the book.  So I’ll just mention a few points I’ve not seen mentioned elsewhere.

1) This was an Edinburgh Book Festival event.  The EIBF in March? Yes, indeed. Increased funding from a variety of sources means that there will be events throughout the year, not just during August.  This can only be a good thing.

2) The event was held in the Lyceum – my favourite theatre – though not ideal for audience questions when the audience was seated on 3 levels and there were ongoing issues with microphones.

3) Who knew that Ishiguro spent his gap year working as a grouse beater at Balmoral?  There is no better way to see the moors, he said.  You’re off the tracks and must not break formation.  If you meet a bush, you must go through it.  if you meet a bog, you must wade through it.  (Hence, the splendid evocations of Dark Age British landscapes, I suppose.)

4) On the somewhat cool reactions to The Buried Giant: I’m doing something different.  Critical reaction has always been the same, whenever I change direction.  Critics didn’t like me not being a Japanese writer when I published the quinessentially English The Remains of the Day.

5I never for one moment anticipated the furore about the fantastical elements in The Buried Giant.  When I’m writing, I’m so immersed in driving forward the plot (his actual word was desperate), that I’ll grab onto any device that helps me do that.

(Editor’s note: This is not convincing me to read further. I’m not a fan of the ageing Sir Gawain and the geriatric dragon …)

6) Audience question: Is Edwin a terrorist in training?  Answer: I wouldn’t say that but he is about to be radicalised. 

(Editor’s note: Now we’re getting somewhere …)

And indeed we were.  Ishiguro explained that the neutral non-realistic dark age setting allowed him to explore the theme of genocide without the story getting hung up on historical particulars. This is a land where things best forgotten remain that way.  Both in the collective consciousness and in the more intimate memory of a long marriage.

This was the point that persuaded me to read on and complete the novel.  Yes, I can see the advantages of the defamiliarisation and the threats that appear when difficult memories begin to emerge from the mists, but I do wish the details weren’t so opaque. Everything is symbolic or should that be allegorical? In which case what’s the purpose behind confiscating Axl and Beatrice’s candle in chapter 1? Or the meaning of the mysterious boat ride in the final chapter? As you can see, I had problems from beginning to end.  Guaranteed not to appear on my best of 2015 list.

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Colourless TI did say Tony was identifying huge holes in my reading with his J-Lit Giant Hall of Fame, didn’t I?  Well there’s no hole greater in contemporary fiction reading terms than Haruki Murakami, and yet, I confess I’ve never really felt the urge to read him.  It’s that reputation for the surreal and magical that dissuades me.  So, when word went round that Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage wasn’t of that ilk, I thought I’d dip my toe in the water. Particularly as I love a quest.

Tsukuri is, you guessed it, in search of colour.   As a teenager, he was  part of a very close knit group of five.  His four peers all had names denoting colour.  This gave him a bit of a hang-up.  He thought he was the boring one. Yet he was the only one to leave his home town to study in Tokyo.  Not that his departure led to the break-up of the group.  But something did happen which caused the rest of the group to suddenly severe all ties, irrevocably.  The shock of this bleached the poor boy of any residual colour he may have had, and rendered him incapable of forming close relationships.

Time passes but the only friend he makes during his college years also disappears from his life without explanation.  Tsukuru is convinced that the same character flaw is to blame and that the pattern will continue to repeat forever.

Years after this – now in his early 30’s – he meets Sara.

Let me say that up to this point I found the novel fascinating and psychologically true.  As would anyone who has experienced profound heartbreak and gone through days, months, years even when waking up is not the favoured option.    Sleepwalking through life, doing something to pass the time, until the pain abates.  Such are Tsukuru’s college years.  Very emotional reading though with too many sexual fantasies.

The story went off-kilter during the process of Tsukuru’s recovery.  Didn’t believe Sara would be so discerning or insist  that Tsukuru come to terms with the past before getting involved with him.  Didn’t believe the setups for Tsukuru’s interviewing his former friends.  Absolutely incredulous that not one of them believed the heinous accusations levelled against him and yet still flung him overboard, so to speak. How did that man not lose his cool?

And yet, Murakami says that Tsukuru’s experience is based on an experience of his own. Well, it’s a steep learning curve, and with friends like that, who needs enemies?  Turns out the Tsukuru’s quest for personality is a actually a search to discover he already had it in spades. Which should give him the confidence to get his girl, shouldn’t it?

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Eyrie – Tim Winton

EyrieTom Keely, once a renowned environmental activist, has lost his job, his reputation and his self-esteem.  He has retreated to his eyrie, a flat 10 floors up, with self-pity, booze and pills for company.

There’s only one direction in which to travel, and Winton’s plot is designed to bring the man back down to earth.

A chance encounter with his neighbour, a woman from his past and her grandson, is the catalyst for this process.  There’s something about them that appeals to Keely’s better nature and he begins to reengage.  BUT, given that he is a shambling wreck of a man with seriously diminished brain power,  this may not be the best decision.  Gemma was always bad news, even when they were kids, when she and her elder sister sought refuge in Tom’s home while her father was battering her mother. Things haven’t improved for her since those days.  She finds herself caring for her grandson because her daughter is in jail for drug offences.  The child’s father plays no active role in his son’s upbringing and besides, he’s lean, mean and it’s best he remains unaware of your existence.

In those far off days, Gemma was protected by Tom’s father, a preacher with a heart as big as his physique and  a reputation of mythical proportions. Tom suddenly finds himself in competition with that reputation, wanting to prove himself worthy of the big man. The irony is that the man who has walked away, rejected and alienated those who are actually on his side, does not turn away from the person who presents the greatest threat.

The character study of Tom Keely, and his impaired judgment is fascinating and perturbing in equal measure; that of Gemma is laced with ambiguity.  She, too, is damaged goods.  The protection afforded in the past, temporary, and when the Keelys moved away, the chickens came home to roost. She has survived through developing a thick skin and strategies, not always beneficial to those around her.  So, while she is in some instances a victim, in others she is a malign presence.  It’s not always clear whether she is a vulnerable adult, genuinely needing Tom’s help, or a predator, capitalising on Tom’s vulnerabiliites to drag him into the vortex of her own maelstrom.

Eyrie is an intense story, vibrantly told. Winton is an author I’ve been meaning to read for years and I’m now annoyed that I’ve waited so long. (I started here because the novel is longlisted for both the 2014 IMPAC and the 2015 Folio Prize). Purists may not like the fact that his prose is choppy, not always using full sentences. I did. It reflects the way people think, and there’s a plethora of history contained in the 1st sentence. “So.”  Descriptive passages are finely tuned, whether that to the sleazy after-effects of Tom’s binges or the beauty of the natural habitat of Western Australia.The ambiguities that pervade the text are masterful. Motifs of falling men recur throughout. Is Winton foreshadowing or teasing? At the start Tom has already fallen, even though he lives on high.  The novel ends with him literally flat out on the pavement. Does this mean that the downward spiral continued until physical circumstances matched the metaphysical and nothing else remains? Or is the lowest physical point the moment of his greatest triumph and the start of better things to come? That is for each reader to decide.

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imageSnow Country (Penguin Modern Classics)Translated by Edward G Seidensticker,

As Tony, the host of January in Japan, builds up his pantheon of J-Lit Giants, he is also identifying whacking great holes in my reading experience.  That pantheon now consists of 15 and, before this year’s January in Japan began, I had only read a short story by Mishima and one by Tanazaki. Time to put that to rights (or at least double the numbers) by the end of this year’s event.

Yasunari Kawabata’s Snow Country entered my radar as a result of reading David J Simon’s wonderful An Exquisite Sense of What is Beautiful this time last year, part of which takes place in hot spa in the same mountainous region of Japan. Kawabata’s novel was cited when he won the Noble Prize for Literature in 1968.

Good job I wasn’t on the jury then!

Where shall I begin? Let’s start with Culture and my anathema to Shimamura, a rich married man who leaves his wife and children at home In Tokyo to holiday at the spa and cavort with the local geisha for weeks on end before returning to wife. (The plot in a nutshell.) I use the word cavort, but it’s not as blatant as that particularly as this is not a graphically sexual novel.   While he’s behaving this way, Shimamura spends his time obsessing about a third female, one he saw on the train journeying to the spa, tending to an obviously terminally-patient.  This behaviour earns him no approbation and seems acceptedw as normal.

Then there’s the female lead – Komako – one of many local geishas, paid to entertain the male guests at parties with music, song and possibly/probably more. (It’s not explicit.)  She’s capricious and spends most of her time drunk, perilously close to a state of emotional collapse and manically worried about her reputation, particularly if she’s found in Shimamura’s room come morning time. …

Must be a geisha-taboo – a convention not explained in the text (why would it be – Kawabata’s Japanese audience would get it).  Neither is there an introductory essay in this edition, not even the one originally written by the translator.  I found it odd that Penquin chose not to reprint it here.

I could have used it because there was so much flying over my head. Conversations between Shimamura and Komako full of non-sequiturs, zero character development, events that I knew were symbolic and significant, though I couldn’t tell you how. ( Not even the climactic burning house scene.) It felt very much like an episodic patchwork, which in many ways it is.  An understanding of the novel’s etymology tells me all I need to know.

Any redeeming qualities? The descriptions of the snow country itself and its progression through the seasons. It was a great book to read as the belated Scottish winter arrived.  Kawabata’s descriptive prowess was much in evidence and I admired many visual and psychologically astute sentences. A couple of chapters in, I was thinking of The Great Gatsby in the sense of a lean, spare analogous novel with not one word wasted, packed with hidden meaning.  I’m sure the same is true of Snow Country. It’s just that I don’t have the context to decipher it.

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imageThis Is Where I Am – Karen Campbell (Amazon Affiliate Link)

Well done, book group.  I could not have have started the 2015 reading year in better fashion.  This is Where I Am is a rivetting novel that I urge everyone to read – especially if you are from Glasgow.

It is the story of two people starting from a personal ground zero.  Deborah is a recently bereaved widow who volunteers at the Scottish Refugee Council in an effort to fill her time. Abdi is an asylum seeker from Somalia who has arrived in Glasgow with his 4 year-old daughter, Rebecca.  We do not know what has happened to bring him here, but we do know his daughter stopped speaking following the loss of her mother.

Deborah is assigned to Abdi as a mentor.  Her role isn’t just to guide him through the process of applying for refugee status.  She is to show him the city that may become his home and help him adjust to his new existence. It’s not plain sailing.  First there is the physical reality. “There are not that many tall, black men in Glasgow”.  Abdi is conspicuous. Glasgow has its fair share of rascists and Abdi is targeted.  Secondly, the mental trauma of the past. A series of flashbacks reveal the reasons for Abdi asylum seeking status and his daughter’s silence.  Thirdly, the trials of a bureaucratic system, designed, at times, to prevent asylum seekers and refugees from making progress.

Deborah too has much to learn.  She is financially comfortable but the long years of caring for her husband have left her isolated. So the volunteer work is a first step into reconnecting with society.  Perhaps for this reason, she invests more in the relationship with Abdi and his daughter than I would have expected, though it’s fortunate for them that she becomes a friend who cares, despite the emotional scars and cultural minefields that must be negotiated.

You could say that this is a political novel and, in these days when – shall we say – foreigner-bashing is becoming increasingly prevalent, it will make some question their preconceptions. However, in no way is this a didactic read.  It is a humane story of reentry into society.

It is also a portrait of a city. Each chapter begins with the description and history of a place, whether that be one of Glasgow’s iconic sites, such as the Kelvingrove museum, or one of the less touristy spots, such as Leverndale mental hospital. They are all places where Deborah and Abdi meet and the descriptions serve to show the contrast and colour of Scotland’s largest city.  The same is true of the demography.  The supporting cast is just as varied.  For every obnoxious rascist (and one is particularly beyond the pale), there is a warm, generous-hearted Glaswegian.   For every hypocritical professional cum politician, there is a sincere man of the streets.  For every asylum seeker who succeeds, three fail with differing fates awaiting them.

Campbell is not just showing where Abdi is, but how it is, and it’s not always pretty. It is an emotionally honest novel, uncomfortable in places. Campbell does give us an ambiguously happy ending (you have to read it) but at the cost of an unfeasible plot twist.  (My only criticism.)

That said, this doesn’t detract from the pleasure of the novel at all.  Primarily due to the language.  Whether it be Glaswegian banter in a supermarket fishmongery, impenetrable bureaucratic jargon, or the bemused misunderstanding of someone coming to terms with English idiom, the pitch is flawless and frequently hilarious.

Her Sunday School teacher told her she was a ‘mucky pup’ after craft-time, when she had glue on her hair and chin  I looked up “pup’ in my dictionary afterwards – it means young dog.  She called my little girl an animal!

Fortunately Abdi realises this is not an insult and adopts it as his daughter’s nickname. Lovely, isn’t it? Just another of this novel’s many endearing features.


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