Sunday, August 18, 2013

Reading Journal: Collected Novellas, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1990)

My first foray into the rarefied air around this Nobel winner, the collection contains three novellas: Leaf Storm, (1955); No One Writes to the Colonel (1961). and Chronicle of a Death Foretold (1983). The first - which is Marquez's first book ever, and, Wikipedia tells me, took seven years to find a publisher - tells of a man going against the people of his town to give an outcast a decent burial. The second is about a war veteran waiting day after day, year after year, for his army pension to start coming in. The final story's a reconstruction of the circumstances of a murder, stringing along the suspense and making you question how it will finally happen right up until the final page. As a group, I'm sure Marquez never intended for them to be interpreted as a group, (though he's still alive, we could ask him), but each story has an element of the absurd, an incredible level of pathos, less magic than the magic realist style he became known for after One Hundred Years of Solitude (I hear), and, most interestingly to me, a persistent sense that death is always in the room. My favourite - and Marquez's, too, (Wikipedia again) - was Leaf Storm; he liked it because it was first and in a way his purest and most personal work, but I enjoyed it most because of the shifting narrative voice: the story's told in turns by an old man, his daughter and his grandson, which keeps the account interesting because each of the three has a different opinion that colours the telling. My least favourite was the final story, I just thought it dragged on, but I have to say, that was the point: everyone knows that Santiago Nasar has been killed, and before that, everyone knew that he was going to be killed - the story's entirely in the lead-up, the foretelling and not the death itself. In all, I'm glad I started with three shorter works instead of one of the longer novels, as it was a chance to see his style varying and evolving as well as to get acquainted with his preoccupations... not to mention, a first visit to Macondo (in Leaf Storm), the town to which we will return in One Hundred Years of Solitude. Or I will, at least. Trans. Gregory Rabassa (LS, CDF) and J.S. Bernstein (NWTC).

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Reading Journal: April Fools Day, by Josip Novakovich (2005)

I probably won't come up with a better descriptor for this novel than Francine Prose did when she called it the "Croatian Candide," but there was a second comparable I discovered as I read it, Kafka, which I hope wasn't only because the book has an Eastern European totalitarian backdrop. More than anything, what struck me about this was how humourously absurd everything was, right down to chapters titled "After a soccer war, Croatia becomes a banana republic," and (slight spoiler alert), the trifecta of "Ivan tries family happiness," "Ivan discovers the thrills of adultery" and "The joys of cuckolding come to a sorry end." The desire to laugh at this simple man's existence is juxtaposed with a very real account of growing up under Tito and the dissolution of Yugoslavia, and though the character comes of age with the country, bringing to mind a figure like Saleem Sinai in Midnight's Children, and the writing is dense, the work never feels heavy-handed or overly political, and the absurdities of this one man's life only paint the political realities with the same brush by implication. My enjoyment lessened in that book's latter third, which grapples with the metaphysical when Ivan is presumed dead and/or to be a ghost, but overall it's a remarkably pleasing read. (Full disclosure: Josip lead one of my fiction workshops at Summer Literary Seminars, Vilnius, in August, 2011... regretfully, I'm only now getting around to reading his novel.)

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Reading Journal: The Yellow Birds, by Kevin Powers (2012)

I hate to do it, but sure, I'll say it: Tim O'Brien for the Iraq War. It gets a bit purple in places - one two-page sentence in the latter half, in particular - and it doesn't push the limits of recall versus recount in the way The Things They Carried does, but this is in a way a much-needed novel, one that imagines around the giant reality of this conflict. What impressed me most was that not a ton happened in the book: it alternates from scenes during, before and after our hero, John "Bart" Bartle, embarks on his mission, and other than him there are only two other major characters: his friend, the 18-year-old Private Daniel Murphy, and the battle-hardened sargeant, Sterling. It's compelling throughout and reads fast while being rather imaginative and stylized, telling a simple story in clear and plain language and earning comparisons to everyone from Hemingway and Stephen Crane to Cormac McCarthy, as in this Guardian article, written upon the book's snagging of the newspaper's first novel prize. Love it or otherwise, it will endure - I thought it was a very good novel.