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A Sweet Scent Of Death

Posted : 11 years, 6 months ago on 17 November 2006 12:39 (A review of A Sweet Scent of Death)

A Sweet Scent Of Death is the second novel by Mexican author and screenplay writer, Guillermo Arriaga, although you probably sort-of know him better as the guy who wrote Amores Perros and 21 Grams. It's one of those novels that you know from the start whether you are going to like it, or not.

It is the story of a small Mexican village, Loma Grande, where one day the naked body of a teenage girl is found, and how the finger of blame, when coupled with hearsay, escalates to such a point that it ends with violence. A local boy, Ramon Castanos, had an unspoken of fancy for the murdered girl but his grief leads the villagers to believe they were actually secret lovers. The girl's secret letters, peppered with coded messages, lead him to believe that she felt the same way for him. And the villages, wanting the murder avenged, force Ramon into killing her attacker. But who was it? One man claims to have seen frequent visitor, the Gypsy, frollicking in the bushes with the murdered lady but it was actually Gabriela, who is married to Pedro Salgado, and he would kill her if he knew she was cheating on him. So, unable to defend the Gypsy she can only watch on helpless, much like most of the implicated characters here, as events snowball to the denouement.

It's a great plot, but it belongs in the movies. A Sweet Scent Of Death reads like a movie and it's for that reason I knew I wouldn't like it from the start - I did, however, press on. The translation, also, felt lacking, the prose sometimes feeling lifeless.

There's too many characters in this novel, most with little to add to the narrative other than to goad Ramon into killing the Gypsy. And, due to its cinematic style, the author rarely gets within the heads of his players, preferring to describe their actions. Rather than someone swither over to kill someone, a shaky hand for illustration, it would have been far more satisfying to get inside their head and show the turmoil and guilt they felt.

Overall, a good idea with great plotting but let down by some really shoddy prose. If Arriaga ever gets round to it, then you'd be best served waiting for the film to come out.

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Earth And Ashes

Posted : 11 years, 6 months ago on 17 November 2006 12:38 (A review of Earth And Ashes)

First published in 2000, Atiq Rahimi's Earth And Ashes is a short novella set in his native Afghanistan (he's another one of those writers that run away to France, like Milan Kundera and Gao Xingjian when the going gets tough) during the time of the Russian occupation. Told in the second person, it puts the reader into the shoes - or should that be sandals? - of Dastaguir, and elderly man sitting at the roadside with his grandson, Yassin, for company.

The story revolves around Dastaguir (that's you!) taking his grandson to see Murad, the link between their generations. Murad works in a mine out in the mountains, a barren landscape of loose rock and dust. His mother, wife, and brother have just been lost when their village has been razed to the ground by Russian bombs. Dastaguir, with Yassin, has travelled to the mine to inform his son of the fate which has befallen their family.

The writing, like the landscape, is sparse but conveys much. The translator has brought a certain pathos to the words so that the losses of war imply tragic emotions without explicitly stating. Not only are family members lost but their homes are gone, the war seems to have beaten them, and, since Yassin has lost his hearing from a bomb blast, there is the hint of tradition being lost. Oral history is worthless when passing it down to a boy who cannot hear.

Earth And Ashes is a great little tale, it's brevity in no way indicative of its power. Despite it's setting, the fable of Dastaguir, by inviting you to see with his eyes, opens it up to be more of an international affair. The landscapes are blank enough for you to fill in the details; the oppressors mentioned only in name for you to replace with your own.

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The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The

Posted : 11 years, 6 months ago on 17 November 2006 12:33 (A review of The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea (Vintage Classics))

Yukio Mishima’s The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea is a short novel but, due to its tight plot, brevity is not an issue. Published in 1963, seven years before he committed ritual suicide, the novel explores motivation and the factors that can cause someone to abandon their passions and resume their life embracing the dreams of another.

Noboru Kuroda, a thirteen year old on the cusp of an adult world, is part of a savage gang whose members, despite their exemplary grades at school, have rebelled against the adult world they deem hypocritical. Under the tutelage of Noboru’s friend, also thirteen, they condition themselves against sentimental feelings – a goal they call ‘objectivity’ - by killing stray cats.

Ryuji Tsukazaki, a merchant seaman, has been granted two days’ shore leave and has spent the time romancing Noboru’s widowed mother, Fusako. Noboru likes the sailor at first, his commitment to the sea and all the manly stories he has to tell. But, as Ryuji falls for Fusako, Noboru feels betrayed by the man’s burgeoning romanticism and, with the help of his gang, feels that action should be taken against the man who has replaced his father.

The first thing I noticed while reading this novel was that the characters are rich with life and history. Noboru, at thirteen, has strong feelings for his mother that manifest through voyeuristic sessions at night when, peeking into her room through a spy-hole, he watches her undress, entertain, and sleep. Ryuji, the sailor, knows he has some purpose at sea and continues his life off the land in the hope that one day he will learn his place in life. And Fusako, five years widowed, displays certain strength as she runs her own business, mixes with a richer class of citizen, while trying to raise he son as best she can.

The way the characters develop from this introduction is fast yet believable – the book, in fact, is split into two sections, Summer and Winter, to show that enough time has passed to be plausible. Noboru’s respect for Ryuji wanes as he becomes the worst thing, based on his gang’s beliefs, a man can be in this world: a father. Ryuji’s abandonment of his life’s passion is, of course, the main thread of the novel and it is a tragic decision he makes to give up the destiny waiting for him at sea in order to embrace the world of Fusako and the new direction she has planned for him.

The best thing about this novel is the language. The translator, John Nathan, has done a wonderful job and not a page passes without hitting you with a warm wash of sea-spray. Metaphors and similes are drenched with watery goodness as they add to the novel’s appeal. The prose is warm during the Summer section but as the book turns to Winter the turns of phrase become icier and tend to sting more. The dialogue is nice and realistic and doesn’t smart of stereotypical Japanese honour; the way the characters interact completely plausible.

I hadn’t heard of Mishima until I picked up this novel and, given that he had three Nobel nominations in his lifetime, I will certainly look out for more of his work. His concise prose, realistic characters, and the way his voice carries the sea makes him a rare find. If books were shells, I would hope to hear Mishima in every one.

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Palindrome Hannah

Posted : 11 years, 6 months ago on 17 November 2006 12:31 (A review of Palindrome Hannah)

Having been a fan of horror for many years I have moved away from the genre (although I still enjoy the occasional horror movie) due to its decline. There is little originality left in the field given that it’s becoming just the same old authors churning out the same old stories over and over. Indeed, with more voices leaving the field (Anne Rice, Poppy Z. Brite, Clive Barker) there are fewer - easily available anyway - to listen to. Sometimes a novel comes along that offers an original spin on the genre but fails in its execution - Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves being a case in point.

So, when told about Palindrome Hannah, a horror novel by self-published author, Michael Bailey, I was interested to see if he had anything new to offer the genre. His claim that the book is part homage to David Mitchell’s work was intriguing although the homage to Stephen King was disconcerting given that I view King as a tired voice in a genre crying out for new blood and fresh invention. The book itself, a collection of five novellas with interweaving elements, claimed to have a sixth tale, told in reverse, which detailed the sad life of the title character.

The first story, Reflections, sees the suicidal Aeron Stevenson struggle with some inner demons and the more he agonises over them the more distant he becomes from wife, Karen, and child, Matty. He takes time off work as he suffers delusions – of being one of his son’s army men, for example – and resolves that the only way to escape the delusions, when looking at the man in the mirror, is to take his own life. He decides on his plan of action and, after writing a verbose suicide note that felt out of character, he attempts to shoot himself although Death, it seems, is partial to the occasional practical joke.

Pumpkin Carving, the second tale, is one of the weaker in the book. It follows the declining marriage of Tayson and Jackie Pierce as he, editor of Seattle magazine, Brenden Talented, goes from bar to bar being nasty to everyone he meets while stalking his wife who we discover has a healthier appetite for men than is immediately obvious. The characters are deliberately unlikeable and Tayson’s repertoire of jokes is tired but at least they are spoken by the character and not the narrator – that would be criminal. The narration in this tale jumps between third person (Tayson) and first person (Jackie) and recounts each other’s version of events as they spiral toward the gory denouement.

Third story, The Whiteness, is the worst of the five on offer. It’s written as a memoir of a stay in an orphanage during the 1920s which, given everything that happens there, is so completely unbelievable: the caretakers were bullies; boys and girls were separated; nobody was permitted to talk; food was unrecognisable as food; and so on as we experience the ‘so bad it’s cliché’ world of the young Earl Heimlich. Given that the memoir is full of mistakes, which Heimlich acknowledges, it does make a mockery of the aforementioned Brenden Talented which published it. In his memoir Heimlich thinks back to mental blackouts he had – or should that be whiteouts since he nicknamed them ‘the whiteness’? - and the events that led to the salvation of he and the others in the orphanage. I am, however, left perplexed at how someone in the 1920s can be described as having a Beatle-style haircut and looking like John Lennon. Even though I’m aware the memoir was written after Beatlemania it still felt clumsy.

Penultimate tale, Finding God, is the best on offer in Palindrome Hannah. It begins with a man, recognisable from Reflections, with no known identification (so he’s called John Doe) in a mental institution claiming that he is God. Over a course of consultations, two-dimensional lead character Dr. Milton – his ongoing pen clicking doesn’t make him a rounded or believable person – asks John all manner of questions. John, who has a touch of the Kevin Spaceys about him, answers every question almost as if he is Spacey’s character from K-Pax or, er, John Doe from Se7en. This tale, of the five, is fast paced as the man who believes himself God apparently makes a country disappear and disappears from the institution as and when he pleases.

The final yarn, Inside/Outside, tells of bully Ray Duschenne and the kids who make a pact to get their revenge on him. He wakes in a coffin wondering if he is dead or if he has been buried alive by accident. The story then backtracks through each member of the gang he bullied as they play their part in the plan to serve Ray’s comeuppance. Ray, as a bully, felt stereotyped – father beats him up, you see – but, for a young tyrant, he seemed to be a bit of a loner which, given that bullies usually have henchmen, was a nice touch although an exploration into why he was who he was could have made the story more tragic. The ending of this story - and the whole novel, of course - was the best as it answered a question left by the woeful Pumpkin Carving tale and brought the book to a close, clicking the penultimate piece of the jigsaw into place. The story of Hannah, it seems, is meant to be a missing piece for discussion rather than conclusion.

There’s nothing wrong with five interlinked stories and, to give the author credit, they do link fairly well and at unexpected tangents. The big problem is the claim that there is a hidden sixth story woven into the others, the story of the book’s title character. I would think that ‘woven’ is the wrong word and would suggest ‘shoe-horned’ as an alternative as the appearances of Hannah and her mother, Julie, feel tagged on, their presence never feeling natural. Hannah, in fact, makes only one venture into the prose, in Finding God, but I never did feel that her young mother doing a few jobs (supermarket, stripping, babysitting) was enough to show that her life, as the blurb claims, was a sad one. If the author knew in his mind that Hannah’s was a sad life then it didn’t transpire on the page. Of course, in fiction it’s okay to leave questions unanswered, like Michel Faber regularly does, but with Palindrome Hannah I didn’t feel that the author could bring it all together so that I could put down the book pleased to have something to think about. It would, I believe, have been better to have five interwoven stories without the nuisance that is Hannah and her mother.

While the stories told in Palindrome Hannah may not be new it is not so much what is told that let’s the book down but how they are told. I don’t mean the interlinking tales – which is a nice treatment – but I refer to the overall quality of the prose. I never found any of the character’s to be believable and this was, in part, due to their dialogue which seemed strained and failed to excite coupled with the author telling the reader more about them than he should have. And, to top it all off, the book is rife with spelling mistakes and punctuated by the repetition of statements which makes comments in the ‘from the author’ section at the end of the novel where he thanks people for “exhausting editing” and “meticulous proofreading” worth a chuckle.

Bailey seems to be a fan of word games and Palindrome Hannah is privy to a few: doctors, in Reflections, can have their names reversed to hint at their particular discipline; each story is prefixed by a palindrome; the characters are fond of puns. The latter would have been acceptable if left alone but the author takes time out from the narrative to highlight each one.

It is easy to see why Bailey received the rejection slips he refers to in the ‘from the author’ section as Palindrome Hannah suffers from a number of things which Bailey would be best to iron out of his work if he is to become a new voice in horror. He lingers over irrelevant details too much, perhaps for authenticity, but when it doesn’t affect the story how someone drives then it’s not necessary to catalogue every action taken to drive the car. A professional proof-reader wouldn’t go amiss so as to capture spelling and factual errors rather than trusting the task to – what I can only presume – are friends and relatives. The final thing would be to quit the cheesy posturing – reminiscent of Garth Marenghi – such as “to all of you on the other side of this written mirror – my reflective readers – for surviving my horrific tales”. Yes, Stephen King does it but he’s a tired old voice. Remember?

Overall, I wasn’t enamoured by Palindrome Hannah. It’s a novel with a nice idea and satisfactory construction but it’s ultimately let down by inexperienced storytelling. I should hope the author improves with his next novel and collection of short stories alluded to on the back cover, even though I doubt I shall be reading them, but I wonder if Palindrome Hannah - without the title character and with neater prose – could have made more of a splash with agents and publishers rather than a bump in the night.

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Slaughterhouse 5

Posted : 11 years, 6 months ago on 17 November 2006 12:28 (A review of Slaughterhouse 5 (Vintage Crucial Classics))

Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5 is seen as his best work and a modern classic although, having completed it, I’m left wondering why. Blending science fiction with his memoirs Vonnegut has created a meta-fictional novel where time travel is a primary plot device; one that allows him the freedom to dismiss chronology in the telling of his tale.

Billy Pilgrim is a war veteran, having been a prisoner of war in a converted abattoir in Dresden. Years after the war he is involved in a plane crash which causes him to become “unstuck in time”; a strange condition that allows him to travel to any point in his life, or even to the planet Tralfamadore where the aliens that live there view life as a single representation of every moment. Through his frequent travels in time, Billy Pilgrim gets to relive many points of his life such as Dresden, his marriage, and even his death; all of these combine to show Billy’s attempt at making sense of the world, his fatalist conclusions permeating the novel.

The story of Billy Pilgrim doesn’t start until the second chapter, the first, instead, being the author’s apology for the novel’s mess (although he states you can’t make sense of a massacre) and how, in his mind, the book came to be. The prose is minimalist and repetitive. Phrases appear regularly or statements reappear reworded. The use of “so it goes” whenever something dies, be it a person or bubbles in champagne, is understandable, however, in its need to demonstrate death as something routine and cheap, it does become grating.

There are many characters in Slaughterhouse 5 although I don’t feel that any of them were given much depth. People appear for a paragraph and then Billy Pilgrim is off on his travels before you have a chance to get to know them. Even Billy failed to hold my attention, possibly because we fail to really get to know him. The author spends time telling us about him rather than showing him doing anything which, I feel, cheapens the experience. His condition, that of being “unstuck in time”, leaves a nice ambiguity about the novel although it’s highly probable that his travelling is a delusional passage between memories brought on by the trauma of witnessing the bombing of Dresden.

Maybe the book is a product of its time or maybe there’s something I’m missing but Slaughterhouse 5 is not a novel I’d recommend. Having no experience of Vonnegut’s other work I can’t say whether this book, being part memoir, is a typical example of his canon. While the novel is understandably a mess, I can’t help but feel that the prose and characterisation are lacking and what, on paper, sounds like a great idea has been put through a literary slaughterhouse. So it goes.

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The Courage Consort

Posted : 11 years, 6 months ago on 17 November 2006 12:27 (A review of The Courage Consort)

Michel Faber’s The Courage Consort is one of those books where you wish it were longer or part of a collection. A novella of 150 pages it follows the story of a group of singers sent to Belgium for two weeks in order to rehearse a new avant-garde piece for an upcoming event. As they spend more time in each other’s company the group falls apart due to personality conflicts and personal problems.

Roger Courage is the founder of the singing group, named The Courage Consort, although the courage in their name comes from their willingness to tackle contemporary pieces in addition to the traditional standards. His wife, Catherine, is a manic depressive who, in preparation for the trip to Belgium, has forgotten her pills. Ben is an overweight bass singer who lives in his own personal world of silence. Julian is a seemingly bisexual vocalist with a love for Bohemian Rhapsody. And Dagmar, a young German, is the opposite of Catherine in her love for life; she has also, for the trip, brought along her newborn child, Axel.

The book begins with Catherine Courage sitting on the window ledge contemplating whether the four storey drop would be enough to kill her as her husband sit in the next room. As it continues the quintet spend the days practising Partitum Mutante, the avant-garde piece of Italian composer Pino Fugazzi, while the nights provide them with an over exposure to each other that leads to constant arguments about the direction the group should take. Their inability to work with each other leads to an incident that eventually breaks up the group, who are “possibly the seventh most renowned in the world”, although there is some hope for the group as evidenced by the optimistic ending.

The prose is light, the vocabulary restrained, and the plot simple. There is humour in this book but it’s not laugh out loud funny; the Brits’ interpretations of European accents, and the way characters communicate with each other. The characters are nicely done although the woman were better drawn than the males, a common occurrence in Faber’s work. Catherine, as the main character, is well conceived – her thoughts were realistic, her dialogue seemed right, and her mania added that extra bit of depth.

Faber’s novella is a good read, although, like in The Crimson Petal and the White, he leaves a few things unanswered – the source of a recurring noise from the nearby forest being a prime example – but this does provide scope for interpretation. Maybe we can presume that some parts of the story are delusions of Catherine’s. The Courage Consort almost succeeds as a standalone book, but I couldn’t help but feel that the characters needed a little more to fully appreciate them. That said, the story is still worth appreciating.

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The Invisible Collection / Buchmendel

Posted : 11 years, 6 months ago on 17 November 2006 12:25 (A review of The Invisible Collection)

This nice little book from Pushkin Press, about A5 in size with quality paper, contains two shorts from Austrian author Stefan Zweig, whom I’d no knowledge of prior to spotting this on the shelf. Both stories, named The Invisible Collection and Buchmendel, are linked by the theme of obsession and describe the lives of two different men for whom life was solely about art and literature respectively.

The Invisible Collection begins on a train where the narrator meets an elderly art collector who proceeds to tell him about a recent experience that he believes is the strangest of his career. The story follows the man’s trip to a far outpost of Saxony where an old customer lived – this is in the time of the German depression following World War I – in the hope that he may sell up past purchases cheaply in the desperate financial climate. When he arrives, he meets with Franz Kronfeld, an octogenarian and veteran of the 1870s war. He notices that something is amiss with Kronfeld: he is blind. After lunch, Kronfeld’s daughter asks that their visitor understands the situation regarding Kronfeld’s collection, which he spends time with daily, and, in respect, deceives him so that he never knows the truth about its value, a worth he sees as the saviour of his family through these hard times.

Buchmendel is the longer of the two stories and a more popular tale from the Zweig canon. Another narrator recounts the story of a man called Jacob Mendel, a Russian Jew living in Vienna, with an encyclopaedic knowledge of books. For over thirty years he has sat from dawn to dusk in a coffee shop studying books and taking payment for advice on myriad esoteric subjects. His bibliomania is such that he notices little around him: the advent of electricity, the onset of war. Then, years later, the narrator remembering the character of Mendel returns to the café to find the old man no longer there and only one person, Frau Sporschil, who remembers him. With much sadness she recounts the story of his last few years, and how, emotionally wrecked from his mania and financially ruined from the depression, he was left with nothing and died on the steps of the café in which he had spent the greatest part of his life.

Zweig’s couplet of existential tales is emotionally wrought, and study a wider canvas than implied by their setting. Both display what I’ve found is a familiar trope of the author’s work; namely the decline of Europe and its increasing level of corruption – a belief that led to his suicide in 1942. There is a strange authorial decision in The Invisible Collection that, in my opinion, eliminates the need for the opening paragraph, as, to paraphrase, it states that the narrator met a man on the train and the following is what he said. Overall, though, the stories work well together, but a larger collection of Zweig’s work would have made a better introduction to his catalogue as it’s hard to understand the scope of his writing and ideas when both pieces are thematically linked.

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Posted : 11 years, 6 months ago on 17 November 2006 12:23 (A review of Saturday)

Ian McEwan’s Saturday is the story of Henry Perowne, a London based neurosurgeon, as he reflects on his life via the events that happen during his day off. Mixing organised chores with random incidents, the novel provides a great character study, one of a man coming to terms with his advancing years, although the book is low on action.

One morning, Perowne wakes early to witness an aviation accident, which troubles him throughout the day. As the day progresses he makes love to his wife, gets involved in a traffic accident, gets beat at squash, buys fish, visits his sick mother, listens to his son’s band perform, argues politics with his poetess daughter, and settles down for a family meal in the evening. While all this happens, the London march against the impending war in Iraq gathers momentum.

The characters are extremely well done with the exception, perhaps, of Daisy, Perowne’s daughter, who simply argues her anti-war stance and hides her own little secret. Daisy and Theo, his son, are, unlike their father, creative souls, and at the age where they are ready to flee the nest. Baxter, the novel’s main antagonist, is a young man rendered emotionally unstable by a degenerative brain disease, embarrassed by his condition yet unable to prevent its detriment to his life. And Perowne, through all this, meditates on everything, no matter how seemingly insignificant, and the author presents him as emotionally ambivalent man; a man slow to take sides, but always willing to consider the wider picture.

The plot is small but the emotional and philosophical conclusions drawn from each observation or incident serves to complete the picture of Henry Perowne’s day. In the evening, Baxter returns to cause havoc with the surgeon’s family, a scaled down metaphor for the impending invasion of Iraq being an example of how one event, no matter how minimal, can lead to big changes in one’s life.

Overall, McEwan has crafted a novel worthy of praise, but its meditative assault can be overwhelming at times; the use of neurosurgical terms is difficult for the layman, but our protagonist is a neurosurgeon so it’s more than appropriate. It’s certainly relevant to the current political climate, and probably serves as a slightly autobiographical account of McEwan’s feelings as his own family grows up and becomes independent. Saturday is worth the read, for an interesting study of making sense of the world, and of growing old; or, as Perowne says, Saturday will become Sunday.

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The Alchemist

Posted : 11 years, 6 months ago on 17 November 2006 12:21 (A review of The Alchemist: A Fable About Following Your Dream)

The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho, is billed as a modern classic, yet I find it difficult to discern why. It has the feel of a fable; from a time as hazy as the desert in which it is set, and carries the lessons on life one would expect from such a parable. The feelings of distant memory that it creates, however, fashion a gap between the book and the reader.

It begins with Santiago, a shepherd boy, who gives up his customs to follow a dream he has, a vision of treasure found at the Egyptian pyramids. Along the way he meets a king, a crystal merchant, an Englishman, and an alchemist; all of whom, with their passing involvement, provide him with a piece of the spiritual jigsaw that is his life. Finally, when he arrives at the Egyptian pyramids, he learns a lesson in life that brings him happiness.

The novel is short, and, while it gets its message across, a number of other things suffer. The characterisation is lean; everyone is faceless, ageless, and speaks with the same voice, a voice of implied wisdom. Most characters are also nameless; even Santiago, the protagonist, is simply referred to as ‘the boy’ throughout. Setting, also, is a casualty of the book; while we follow Santiago through the desert, we never truly get the feeling of being there. We don’t feel the heat, thirst for water, or shiver when night falls.

The prose in the book is extremely simple, giving The Alchemist the feel of a children’s book. Adjectives, especially when necessary, are rare, so that most things are described as ‘the desert’, ‘a horse’, or ‘some wine’. The desert has no texture, the horse no character, and the wine no flavour. Repetition, also, lengthens the book so that, once wisdom has been spoken, it echoes through the narrative so that each action can be credited.

The Alchemist is a quick read, but it’s not a good read. It has the feeling of a bonding session in the workplace where you discuss the implications of pseudo-situations, only moved from the office to the desert. It’s a self-help book disguised as a novel, the “secrets” of life, though hardly life-changing, are listed as stages in one boy’s discovery. I hope you discover this review before the novel.

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Posted : 11 years, 6 months ago on 17 November 2006 12:20 (A review of Ignorance)

Ignorance, by Milan Kundera, is a small novel but big on ideas. Playing like a watered down Odyssey, two Czech émigrés return to post-communist Prague after twenty years. A chance meeting in the airport stirs memories of long ago that leads to an interesting study of our memory, its limits and unreliability, and how, in our ignorance, we can take it for granted and trust it too much.

Irena fled to France during the Russian invasion; Josef to Denmark. Both have built new lives, made new friends, and forgotten who they were. After the fall of European communism in 1989, they return to their city only to find that it’s no longer theirs; it’s full of tourists, whores, and restaurants the Czechs can’t afford. A chance sighting in the airport causes Irena to engage Josef in conversation; she remembers him from a conversation twenty years ago. They agree to meet, and, as the novel builds up to their rendezvous, they go about their homecomings - meeting parents, friends, and, ultimately, themselves - to discover that Prague is no longer home.

Stylistically, the book is a dream. Although little happens in the novel - a conversation here, a wander there – it is the narrator’s asides that gels the experience, wandering off into philosophical mode, or giving atypical history lessons - all the time, maintaining a poetic tone. The prose is terse, but just right to create the surreal atmosphere it needs to succeed. It wanders effortlessly between the different characters and the lessons learned from their actions.

The characters are well drawn, although their focus is completely on their homecoming, their memory, and doubts about their patriotism. Their actions are believable; their conversations intelligent. Prague, as a character, is underdone – little of the city is given, and, after twenty years, it would have been nice to know the visible changes that time has wrought.

Overall, Kundera has provided an appealing novel, doubtless inspired by his own circumstances as a Czech émigré. While it may not be to the tastes of all (i.e. those seeking action) it does endow us with food for thought, something to consider about our memories. And, at least for me, the true thrill was watching how the philosophical and historical asides came together to complete the novel, and reinforce the characters’ feelings.

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