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As I have read very little science fiction, and own a small number of unread sci-fi classics on my shelves, I have that decided that the science fiction thread of this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival is an ideal opportunity to get to know the genre a little better.

So, in preparation, my gorgeous Folio Society edition of The Martian Chronicles was pulled off the shelves and read early in July. It promptly became my 5-star book of the month! Not because of Mick Brownfield’s wonderful illustrations either. Simply because of Bradbury’s extraordinarily imaginative and vivid storytelling. Bradbury’s brio in short.

The Martian Chronicles isn’t a novel per se, although the story arc has a beginning, middle and an end. Rather it is a set of 26 interlinked short stories chronicling man’s conquest of the planet Mars – doomed conquest I might add, because, as we know, from the sorry story of man’s governance of the earth and his fellow creatures, as a species we’re not capable of happy endings. You may disagree. But there you have my natural pessimism and the reason why Bradbury’s work struck such a chord with me.

Still, on a story-telling level, The Martian Chronicles is superlative. The first three stories tell of the three failed expeditions, Not that man didn’t make it to the planet. He did, but he faced a hostile indigenous population, clever enough not to register its hostility, and cold-hearted enough to eliminate its enemies without them having a chance to defend themselves.

During these three stories, told from different points of view (the first a Martian, the second and third from the respective captains of the earthly missions), it is established that the Martians’s secret weapon is telepathy. They can see not only the present but also the nostalgia for the past in men’s minds. Man is naive and unintuitive in comparison, and, by the time the traps are lain and the pennies drop, escape is impossible.

And yet, the fourth expedition is met with an almost uninhabited planet. Man has a secret weapon too. Chicken pox!

Which leads me to Magrs insights:

1) Science fiction is not about the future it is about the present and The Martian Chronicles (1950) is specifically about 1950’s Cold War America.

You know it’s America, because disease wiped out most of the indigenous population when the Europeans arrived. Also the Martian and human townships are reminiscent of the small, cozy towns of the 50’s. The ever-present threat of nuclear war places it firmly in the Cold War era ….

… although that threat appears closer today, than ever before. With two – shall we say, – mavericks, bouncing egos off each other, who knows where we’ll end up? Hopefully not as depicted in story 21.

2) Science fiction is a response to real life, often a critique.

And that often makes Bradbury’s bleakness comical in its knowingness. So for example: the hurt feelings of the astronauts in story 2, when the Martians seem entirely underwhelmed with the success of an impossible journey. Or – my favourite – when Bradbury summarises the trajectory of man’s colonisation of Mars.

But after everything was pinned down and net and in its place, when everything was safe and certain, when the towns were well enough fixed and the loneliness was at a minimum, then the sophisticates came in from Earth. They came on parties and vacations, on little shopping trips for trinkets and photographs and the ‘atmosphere’; they came to study day apply sociological laws; they came with stars and badges and rules and regulations, bringing some of the red tape that had crawled across Earth like an alien weed, and letting it grow on Mars wherever it could take root. They began to plan people’s live and libraries; they began to instruct and push about the very people who had come to Mars to get away from being instructed and pushed about.

Recognise the sociological inevitabilities/imperatives there?

3) The heart of the Martian Chronicles is a matter for discussion.

If the book is, as Magrs, described it a pomegranate (non-hierarchical, a cluster of individual sacs, coalescing to form a whole), where is the heart, the pulse, if you like?

Is it a theme? Such as the evils of colonialism, or the incapability of man to learn and thus the inevitability of repeating past mistakes (my reading).

Or is it something entirely more personal? Magrs spoke of his troubled childhood and the disillusion that results when people reveal themselves to be other than their public persona. (His father, in particular.) The moment when the mask slips. It’s true, there are many such moments in The Martian Chronicles.

That aside, for Magrs, the true heart lies in the story of The Martian, a weakened native, survivor of the chicken pox, now trying to find a place to live safely. Thanks to his telepathic powers, he assumes the form of Tom, the dead son of an elderly human couple, in order for them to accept him into their home. Yet he wishes to remain separate for other human incomers. When he is forced to go into town, Tom is lost, as he shapeshifts into the lost daughter of another bereaved couple. In his weakened state, the Martian is no longer in control of his powers and his empathy for others forces him into another self, It ends badly; his identity and being pulled to smithereens by the needs of others. The lesson for Magrs, a gay teenager in North East England of the 1970’s? That you can’t be all things to all people. You have to preserve yourself.

I love these reading workshops in which authors and translators discuss their personal experience of works by others. They are always illuminating, with plenty of food for thought. May they remain in the festival program for many years to come.

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Translated from German by Peter Millar

After 1945 and 1946, the third part of my fictional exploration of post-war Hamburg reaches the bitterly cold winter of 1946 and the torridly hot summer of 1947, which seemed designed to inflict further suffering on the population of the devastated city.

The Murderer in Ruins, as ice-cold as the landscape,  is killing people and leaving their naked bodies amidst the rubble of Hamburg.  There are no identifying marks. Neither are there any reports of missing persons.  Not as strange as it sounds, given that Hamburg is full of displaced persons with little to no connection to the surviving home population.  The unfortunate chief inspector Stave is tasked with finding the killer, aided by the British officer, Lieutenant MacDonald, but where to start?

Based on a real case in which the four victims remained as unidentified as the killer, Rademacher’s novel reflects the frustration of a case with no leads, no clues in a city trying to reestablish the rule of  law.  After all, given recent body counts, what difference do 4 more bodies make?  The reader must be patient – very patient – as each assumed lead draws a blank.  But, as the author explained at Newcastle Noir, he has reconstructed the case fictionally in order to provide his own solution.  And so the resolution, in which the crimes of the present are inextricably linked with German crimes of the past,  depends on a chance observation ….

I admit, as a thriller, I struggled with the tortoise-like pace of the investigation, but, as a piece of historical fiction, I was bound by the detail of Rademacher’s reconstruction of post-war Hamburg and the psychologies of the characters. Stave, himself, is damaged goods, having lost his  wife in the fire-bombing of Hamburg, and his only son to the Nazis and the Eastern Front.  Despite their ideological estrangement, the father loves his son, desperately combing Hamburg main station for him whenever a train arrives with soldiers returning from the war.  His anxiety is palpable and can only increase when he discovers his son is a POW in Siberia ….

I found Stave a very sympathetic character.  Hamburg is, despite the weather, a hot bed of vice and black-marketeering, and he is a man who understands the importance of overlooking petty crimes to prevent being deflected from the main chase. However, racked with guilt about his wife, anxiety about his son, he is in need of a break. And in Anna, a mysterious aristocratic refugee and skilled black marketeer from East Prussia, it would appear he gets one.  It’s a relationship that seems destined for  greater things, if only he can forget that she tells him nothing of her past …

The exploration of East Prussia and the people who fled to avoid the “Ivans” is continued into the second novel of what will be a trilogy.  The Wolf Children is the collective name given to the mass of child refugees who flowed westwards.  Either orphaned or separated from their parents during the mass exodus at the end of the war, they lived a feral existence in Hamburg, learning to capitalise on opportunities presented by the black market or to engage in child prostitution.  They had their enemies and there was plenty of gang in-fighting,   So when the body of a teenage boy is found lying on top of an unexploded bomb in the harbour area of Hamburg, it is assumed that he is one of them.

Inspector Stave’s second case is a little easier than the first, in that he does at least identify the corpse.  Otherwise the waters are as murky as those of the Elbe, with his prospective Wolf Children witnesses being killed almost as soon as he has talked to them.

Once again I didn’t find the case as enthralling as the social history it explored. The identification of the murderer is quite well-signposted although the motivation for the boy’s killing would be utterly unbelievable if it wasn’t based on obscure historical fact. The things we do not know! Rademacher’s vision for these novels is greater than the murder mystery, and I would say that the scope of this second novel is to investigate the impact of war on the younger generations.  It is quite heartbreaking in places – no more so than in relation to Chief Inspector Stave’s son.

The war may be over but the repercussions are severe.  The world remains fractured, its logic twisted.  Why else could nothing and nobody function without the black market and what are the British occupation forces doing dismantling the remaining machinery at Hamburg docks?  This can hardly be called peace. Personal relationships are suffering also.  Like the temperatures of the summer of 1947, resentments are rising.  Where is this heading?  I can hardly wait for the third instalment!

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If 1945 saw the invention of curried sausage in Hamburg, then 1946 saw the British occupation overseeing denazification and the establishment of post-war administration in its allocated area.  Not an easy task, for it is generally accepted that in the post-war carve up of German, France got the wine, America got the scenery, Russia got the lion’s share (and farmland), while Britain got the ruins.

Fair’s fair you might say as Britain was tasked to clean up the areas devastated by British bombs – no more so than in Hamburg. Let’s be more specific there – the working-class areas of Hamburg. A cynical, though perhaps valid, point is made – I forget whether it’s in Rhydian Brook’s novel or in Cay Rademacher’s The Murderer in Ruins (which I read straight afterwards) – that the British ensured that the beautiful villas on the Elbchausee remained untouched, so that they could requisition them for their officers once the war was won.

Villas on the Elbchaussee, seen from the Elbe

Jenisch Haus, Elbchaussee

This requisitioning of the villas on the Elbe is the foundation on which Brook builds his novel, though the British officer to which Stefan Lubert’s villa is allocated is no ordinary army officer.  Colonel Lewis Morgan is uncomfortable with the high-handedness of Army Command and makes an original proposition – that Lubert and his daughter stay in the villa in the rooms above the grand rooms that his own family will occupy.

He makes the decision unilaterally.  It’s a surprise for his wife when she arrives on German shores with their youngest son, Edmund.  Given that she is still mourning the death of their eldest, killed when their home in Milford Haven was bombed … you can imagine her reaction!

Emotions run high on the German side too, for Lubert lost his wife in the fire-bombing of Hamburg, and his teenage daughter, Freda, is going off the rails. While the adults attempt to deal rationally with the situation,  Freda remains hostile. She represents a severe threat to Morgan’s younger son, Edmund, naïve, trusting, inheritor of his father’s golden heart.

Both children become involved with the Trümmelkinder – orphans and displaced kids, living amongst the ruins, and requisitioning the odd empty villa themselves. Most seeking only to scavenge enough to keep themselves alive, though  older ones, wishing for vengeance, are plotting against the occupiers.  Enter Albert ….

Can there ever be a healing for these traumatised folk? A true rapprochement not only between former enemies, but also between husband and wife, now grown apart after an enforced separation of 4 years? Will Captain Morgan’s generosity be repaid in kind, or is betrayal in these circumstances the only expectation?

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I would say this novel is an absorbing personal drama rather than historical fiction. Sufficient background information is provided to provide context, texture and motivation, but it’s not the main focus and so the novel is never weighed down by it.  The consequences of Captain Morgan’s actions are what drive the novel forward; his generosity implausible you might think, but actually it is that of the author’s grandfather.  This was the starting point for the novel, and in the afterword Brook makes clear that the rest of the story, including the dirty linen, is his own invention. Just as well!

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When travelling,  it is important to connect with local culture. And so, while in Hamburg, I went on a quest with Uwe Timm’s The Invention of Curried Sausage to discover the origins of that particular culinary delight.  OK, I confess I bought my first one ever for the photo opportunity. Then I ate it. It was fine, but I’m not likely to repeat the experience.  Thankfully the novel was more to my taste.

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Translated from German by Leila Vennewitz

The rumour is that the curried sausage was invented in Hamburg in the autumn of 1945 by fast food stall owner, Lena Brucker.  In 1989 Uwe Timm’s fictional self, who as a child indulged frequently in this fast food, tracks her down to her old people’s home, with the intention of finding out how she did it.  It takes more time that he allocated, for Lena, now a lonely old woman, knows how to string out her story – particularly, when she has a young man who keeps coming back, bringing delicious German cake to each meeting.

But Lena’s story is no ordinary one and worth the wait (and the calories!) It takes us back to the final days of the Second World War, when Lena (43) meets the young naval officier, Hermann Bremer (24), and, seemingly on a whim, colludes in his desertion.  She keeps him hidden in her flat, but although the war is almost over, this is still a dangerous action.  Neighbours still spy on each other and are quick to denounce traitors to the authorities.

Once the war is over though, Lena decides that she would like to keep Hermann to herself a little longer and so, using the same creativity she will employ in the creation of her culinary masterpiece, she invents a continuation of the war, complete with manoevres and strategies, to convince Hermann that he must stay put. Of course, this is a tactic doomed at some point to failure, but Lena enjoys herself (and Hermann) while it lasts.

The surprise return of her womanising, free-loading husband after six years forces Lena to recognise her desire for independence, and once he is out of the way, she embarks on the journey – via barter and the black market – that, step by step and by fortuitous accident,  leads to her famous invention.

I’m remembering this story as a light-hearted one, which is strange given the backdrop of war-torn Hamburg, the dangers of harbouring a deserter, and the anathema that Lena must face from her British army employer when the horrors of the concentration camps become clear.  I think that is primarily due to Lena’s resilience and indomitable spirit, refusing to let history weigh her down, continuing to achieve the seemingly impossible.  Because how else do you explain a blind old woman retaining the capacity to knit a multi-coloured intarsia from memory, weaving in the clouds and sunshine of her own life along the way?

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imageShortlisted for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize
Translated from Danish by Misha Hoekstra

As a veteran of the hapless driving lesson (I almost put the car in a ditch within 5 minutes of sitting behind the wheel for the first time, then drove my driving instructor to bang his head against a brick wall – of his own volition – 10 minutes before my driving test, passed first time incidentally!), I was looking forward to the misadventures of Dorthe Nors’s heroine.  Could they possibly live up to mine?

Well, yes, but in an entirely different way.  Sonja’s technical battles with the motor car are not helped by a driving instructor, who wants only to talk about herself whilst driving the car by proxy.   The mysteries of the gear box are solved only when Sonja – after much soul-searching – requests a change of instructor, but Folke brings with him a whole new set of issues ….

The shifting of gears is, of course, a metaphor for Sonja’s life.  Now 40,  she has been living in Copenhagen for 20 years, but it has yet to become home.  She’s a fish out of water, really, unable to adapt like her friend, Molly, who has become quite the city girl.  A shy, introverted soul, struggling to cope with the brash people surrounding her, establish new friendships, and to reconcile with her estranged sister, Kate, it comes as a surprise that Sonja fills her days translating the violent crime novels of the fictional Swedish author, Gösta Svensson. The content of these is such a dizzying contrast to the Sonja’s inner narrative, it’s small wonder she is afflicted with positional vertigo.

She needs a moment of illumination.  Which, because this is a gentle, comical novel about contemporary loneliness, must arrive in a gentle, comical way to be fitting.  It is a moment so well judged, it will become one of my favourites of the reading year.  All I’m saying is that it involves a traffic light!

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal is easy reading. I suspect the enjoyment factor will be determined by the reader’s reaction to Sonja.  I was initially exasperated by her passivity, but found myself empathising more than I expected towards the end.  She’s a poor, wee soul, needing to find her way home. I’m glad that Nors made it possible.


This post is stage 9 of my Reading Around the World and Back Again With Pushkin Press project.

Next stop: USA

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Courtesy of  www.walterscottprize.co.uk

I have no idea, but let me tell you of my hopes.

It’s testament to the quality of contemporary historical fiction (if that is not a contradiction in terms) that this year’s Walter Scott shortlist consists of 7 titles, not the usual 6.  So as the judges were having problems at the shortlist stage, how are they going to determine the winner?  Because there’s no easily separating the five I’ve read.  Deliberations could go something like this:

Sebastian Barry’s already won once, and Days Without End is a much better novel, so he deserves to win it again!

Rose Tremain’s historical novels have won every other prize going. It’s about time she won this one. Let’s declare The Gustav Sonata the winner!

It’s a travesty that Hannah Kent’s first novel wasn’t even shortlisted.  Let’s make up for that now by declaring The Good People the winner!

There’s nothing more powerful that showing the impact of historical events through the microcosm of an individual’s experience.  Jo Baker’s A Country Road, A Tree is our winner.

Our previous winners contain huge amounts of misery and political intrigue. Let’s have a laugh for a change.  The prize goes to Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill!

I obviously can’t advance any arguments (tongue-in-cheek or otherwise) for The Vanishing Futurist and Mothering Sunday, except that the former is in my TBR and the latter is not.

For me, it is a question of which novel is capable of stealing the prize from Sebastian Barry, whose novel has already beaten Francis Spufford to the Costa Novel of the Year Award, and contains awe-inspiring passages of intense luminosity. And yet my doubts as to historical authenticity linger.  The same is true of Spufford’s Golden Hill, which also contains improbable plot twists, but what can you expect from a novel that is primarily a brilliant homage to the 18th-century picaresque novel?  And yet it provides a detailed and spiritual portrait of New York, when it was just a small town.

imageI suspect either Barry or Spufford – if the judges decide to go for the highly original choice –  will take the prize, but, having just finished The Good People, I’m willing Hannah Kent to win.  In short, her reimagining of the events leading up to the tragic death of 4-year old Michael Kelliher in the pre-famine rural Ireland of 1826 is everything I want my historical fiction to be. I need a full interpretation of how things came to be within the context of prevailing societal norms, taboos, beliefs and superstitions.  Kent excels at writing into the gaps of history here – court records tell what happened, not why the two women accused of murdering the child acted as they did.  I was fascinated by the effective and the non-effective herbal remedies at the heart of this novel, and by the conflict between Christianity and pagan folklore. (And I railed at both from time to time.)  The cadence and lilt of Kent’s prose – at times just as lyrical as Barry’s – held me in that time and place. I forgot my own surroundings.  I could feel the cold, hear the fires crackling, empathise with the despair, even as I refused to condone the behaviour.  And I watched as first an individual woman, then an entire town lost their rational minds.  With only hints as to true nature of Michael  Kelliher’s condition, The Good People was puzzling, terrifying, emotional amd utterly absorbing. It well deserves the accolade I hope it will receive tonight.

P.S Even if the judges don’t agree with me on this, they must surely grant that the UK hardback is the most beautiful on the shortlist. From the embossed golden leaf on the cover to the swoonsworthy deckled edges, ’tis an absolute joy to behold and read.

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Shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize
Translated from Norwegian by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw

Let me say this in advance.  Only one thing would have increased my pleasure while reading this novel of Norwegian island life – and that would have been foul weather in Scotland!  I’m not complaining, but there was a real disconnect while the protagonists were battling the elements and I was sitting under glorious blue skies in Lanarkshire during late May/early June.  Absolutely no reflection on the novel.  I just have to mark the what was perhaps the most wonderful spell of weather since I arrived in Scotland 28 years ago.

Diversions and typically British obsessions aside, let’s get back to the novel.

The island in question is Barroy, inhabited by 3 generations of one family, scratching their living from fishing as best they can.  And yet, the family head, Hans, has ambitions.  He wants to build a quay to connect them to the mainland, to increase their prosperity by connecting them to the milk run.

It’s the early 20th century, and that timeframe is the key to unlock all the underlying themes:  isolation, loneliness, disappointment , ambition, the price of progress, and the meaning of home and motherhood.

It’s a hard life for the Barroys (yes, the island is named after them, or is it vice versa?).  A dangerous life too.  The summers may be lovely (if short) but the winters are brutal.  Money is short and Hans must work on the deep sea fishing boats for months at a time to bring in the cash needed to advance his plans.  Life is precarious.  His elderly father (Martin), his wife (Maria), his daughter (Ingrid) and his backward sister (Barbaro), never know whether Hans will return …. the sea isn’t always a friend.

Hans spends his months at home gradually improving the facilities.  Building the quay takes years. There’s the question of money and the debt incurred to fund the dream; the question of the weather which continually tears down what is built; the question of the outsiders, enlisted to help the building project, and the changes that follow as a result of their presence.  Also the compromises that must made for the sake of commercial gain.

Reversals of fate play their part too.  Maria doesn’t have the marriage or life she wants.  As for Ingrid, the child we see sent away from her family to school, sent away from her family to earn money, the child we would expect to escape the harshness and poverty of her environment (one in which having one’s own chair is the height of luxury), she returns – admittedly, in circumstances not of her own choosing – and stays to complete her father’s vision.  Home is home, after all is said and done.

The matter-of-factness and stoicism of these ordinary folk – the unseen of history – is not only to be admired, it is an object lesson for the molly-coddled of the 21st century (myself included). Whatever fate threw at them, they just got on with it (with one notable exception). As characters, I came to love them and Ingrid’s final act of generosity just astounded me.  I marvelled too at Jacobsen’s writing, particularly his evocation of the natural environment.  Given the first paragraph of this review, I’m tempted to quote a storm, but shall settle instead for an aspect of the environment that took me by surprise.

… the warm land wind that has blown over the island for many days now, but then it suddenly drops …

There are no longer any bird screams either.There is no rustling in the grass and no insects are buzzing.  The sea is smooth, the gurgling of water between the rocks on the beach has gone quiet, there isn’t a sound between all the horizons, they are indoors.

A silence like this is very rare ….

On an island there is so little silence … It is mystical, it borders on the thrilling, it is a faceless stranger in a black cloak wandering across the island with inaudible footsteps.  The duration depends on the time of year, silence can last longer in the winter, with ice on the ground, while in summer there is always a slight pause between one wind and the next, between high and low tide or the miracles that takes place in humans as they change from breathing in to breathing out.

The translation of the novel is a co-operation between Don Barlett and Don Shaw.  There’s no identifying who translated which sections either.  It’s completely seamless. I particularly enjoyed the direct speech that has been rendered in a Yorkshiresque dialect (at least that’s how I read it) to denote the original dialect I assume is used in the original. This is not only creative, it’s effective in strengthening the sense of time and place.

And finally, the winner of the 2017 Man Booker International Prize will be announced this evening.  If you haven’t guessed already, I’m willing the victory to Roy Jacobsen.

5stars

 

 

 

 

 

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