Sunday, 31 October 2010

Recent Reads - A Terminated Journey and One That's Ongoing

Ismail Kadare - The Accident

Kadare is excellent at creating an atmosphere of uncertainty, mistrust, of doubt and speculation with nothing more substantial than rumour to go on. In earlier novels, Doruntine, and The Successor, he used the same techniques, an examination of differing reports, rumours, conjectures and possibilities regarding what had taken place.

The Accident stretches rumour, speculation and possibility even further. It examines the lives of two people who were found dead after an accident. It reports the different perspectives of people who knew them – and the two protagonists, Rovena and Besfort Y, themselves. But even the accounts of these two people are sketchy and flimsy and while we are told that they felt this or that, it is puzzling as to why they should feel such things. In fact the two main characters are not so much persons as axes, delineating a certain perspective or angle. With shifts in time and space, these angles and perspectives change; but whether, in actuality the scene is set two or six months earlier, whether they are in Vienna or Tirana or any other European city does not seem to matter much, for there is little to make the city come alive.

The emotional poles of these axes are their most frequented locations for even in the heat of desire there is a general frostiness to the atmosphere and this is where I found my irritation mounting. These chilly geometrical forms aroused no empathy in me whatever. Their sexual engagement was highlighted but was puzzling rather than erotic. It seemed to be what brought them together but what was the obsession was that kept these people flying around Europe to see each other in such stark and unappetizing surroundings as anonymous hotel rooms was beyond my abilities to fathom.

Perhaps this was the point, or one of them. Obsessions – of other people - are hard to understand. Agreed, but had these people been filled out as characters rather than depicted merely as poles of obsession we might have gained some understanding of why they were attracted and motivated.

The prose in The Accident is certainly clear and uncluttered and the translator John Hodgson has admirably conveyed its lucidity. But despite the dialogue, the book feels like sketches of ideas for a story. It reads as the rudiments of a tale, a map of possible approaches, but the histories of Rovena and Besfort Y, their jobs and their lives are so little described they do not ring true.

I understand that the realms of reality, dream, fantasy, hallucination, mis-perception, great tales from literature, myth, history, ideas and interpretations of myth and history – all these are intentionally intertwined in the lives of these people, in what urges, prompts and motivates them - as indeed is the case in our own lives. The writer's purpose may well be to examine this intricate confluence of realities that make up human beings, and can drive them to the most extreme acts which baffle outsiders; it may well be to show the sources of obsession, how it is fed and can grow like a tumour to take possession of people. If this was the intention then it succeeds. But the skill of a good story is to embed these ideas in a narrative that the reader can be involved in.

Catherine Czerkawska is a gifted and experienced writer – of novels, plays, poems and articles – she writes in a recent article about what makes a good story -

We can craft our elegant prose till the cows come home, but if the reader doesn't care what happens next, then we aren't going to get anywhere. Which is not to say, of course, that honing the prose doesn't matter, because it does.

There are of course other kinds of writing and great literature, which do not necessarily tell a story – poetry for example, and poetic or lyrical prose, such as the descriptive prose in Danilo Kis's Garden, Ashes, and Robert Musil's dazzling presentation of ideas, insights, metaphors and descriptions in The Man Without Qualities - and there are many more of course, these come to mind because I read them recently. There is as it happens, also narrative in these novels though I do not feel that great writing has to have a lot of narrative. Perhaps it's the quality rather than the amount.

Other novels of Kadare which I've read are Broken April, and The General of the Dead Army; they work well and involve us totally in the story, while Chronicle in Stone is a captivating read. But The Accident reads like a dossier or report – as it indeed supposed to be – but a novel that is supposed to be a report, to succeed, I feel – needs the craft of making it work well also as a story. The ideas of obsession, confusion, mistrust, speculation, hidden motives and fracture need to be reflected in the lives of human beings, rather than geometrical poles.

Night Train to Lisbon – Pascal Mercier

Pascal Mercier's book has been described as 'a novel of ideas' but these ideas are relevant to all human beings who have ever contemplated what life – and their own individual life – is about. So it is what I would call real philosophy, applied to our own lives.

The hero is not young and dashing, he is prey to the usual human anxieties and concerns – about his glasses, about missing his train connections, about whether he made the right choices in the past. But he sets out on a journey, and there is something of Alice in Wonderland about it, though without the intensely surreal edge to it. He has entered another world, as we all do when we set out, but in his case it is particularly unusual as he has spent almost all of his life in his home town in Switzerland, his journey is to somewhere he has never been before and where he does not know anyone. It is almost a journey made on a whim, but even as a compelling whim this is very unusual behaviour for our hero; but he wants to find out about the author of a book he has come across and which has profoundly affected him.

In his search for the author of this book he meets various people, all of whom have their own characteristics, more or less appealing, all interesting, and all connected in different ways, with the author of the book our hero Raimund Gregorious has found.

A book, a journey, a search – for people and for meaning – and an examination of one's own life – the perfect combination for me!

It is about ideas but also about how they arise in and affect real people [or real characters I should say]. There are no prescribed 'ways to be', no ultimate answers, but the journey is lived experience, and perhaps that is its own answer. The journeys, the talk and sharing, the exploration, both in

a physical environment and in the realm of ideas, this lived and active experience is its own answer, because of the effects it has on us. It is the hero's journey, that Joseph Campbell described, the journey we all make, through the landscape and territory of our lives, and written as a narrative that is absorbing and engaging – the reader does indeed care 'what happens next' – and this reader did not at all want it to end.

One of my favourite passages:

'….We leave something of ourselves behind when we leave a place; we stay there, even though we go away. And there are things in us that we can find again only by going back there. We go to ourselves, travel to ourselves, when the monotonous beat of the wheels brings us to a place where we have covered a stretch of our life, no matter how brief it may have been. When we set foot for the second time on the platform of the foreign railway station, hear the voices over the loudspeaker, smell the unique odours, we have come not only to the distant place, but also to the distance of our own inside;.......'


three sea horses said...

a bit like 'Ithica'? that poem, i cant remember who wrote it.. or even if its actually called 'journey to Ithica'. my actress cousin read it at my father's thanksgiving service.
i have often noticed that book in book shops and wondered about it, thanks for the review! lots love Txx

dritanje said...

Dear 3 sea horses, I thought of you as soon as i saw the title - must lend it to you. Yes, very much like Ithaca, by Constantin Cavafy, wonderful poem, thanks for reminding me of it lots love xxx

Anonymous said...

I like your review of The Accident, even though I don't agree because I found this book fascinating. I like the way you've clearly addressed Kadare's preoccupations in a thoughtful way rather than just dismissing the book as Tibor Fischer did. (I came here via
Have you tried The Siege? I really enjoyed that one, see