Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The Witching Hour

AFTER DARK Haruki Murakami
Translated from the Japanese by Jay Rubin

Night-time in Tokyo. Jazz and pop standards play at seedy restaurants while a trombonist tries to befriend an insomniac teenager in a cafĂ©, a former wrestler-turned-manager of a ‘love hotel’ called Alphaville deals with a bloody assault on one of the residents, and an American Psycho-type character recuperates after a dark deed. Hovering above all of these is the spectre of another young woman, in a coma in a room with a TV set that has mysterious powers of absorption.

This, then, is trademark Murakami, dealing with one surreal night in the lives of disaffected young Japanese searching for connection. (Along the way, he has fun with the conventions of third-person point-of-view, making it as much of a disinterested observer as the rest.) Murakami fans will find nothing to let them down here, although it must be said that his novels work best when stringing together a series of unsettling, unfathomable images – without relying too much on dialogue that descends into the banal, which is the case with After Dark.

Worth your while? If you’ve read and liked Murakami before, go ahead; if not, you’d be better off with some of his earlier works such as Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World or The Wind-up Bird Chronicle.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Hunt And Peck


Al Alvarez is, famously, the person who befriended Sylvia Plath during her last days, going on to write The Savage God, a study of suicide. Of course, there’s a lot more to the man than that: he’s a poet, champion of other poets, poker player, amateur climber and more – as these essays demonstrate.

Many have appeared earlier in the NYRB, among other publications. And though each one is singularly well-crafted and written, to collect all together is to make the whole a mixed bag that flirts with the theme of "risk taking". Profiles of pianist Alfred Grendel, entrepreneur Torquil Norman and Philip Roth sit side-by-side with Alvarez’s views on Andrew Marvell, and John Berryman (among others) which rub shoulders with thoughts on poker and other risk-taking activities.

A hunt and peck approach, then, is called for to locate pieces of interest – some of which are the profile/interview of Philip Roth, meditations on the genteel state of British poetry, an assessment of Alice Munro and his thoughts on Plath’s biographers. It ends with a rather sweet piece on the Grateful Dead – which, ironically, smacks of the same gentility that Alvarez so abhors in poetry.

Worth your while? Find a bookshop with a comfortable place to sit and you ought to be able to read the pieces of interest without having to buy the whole thing.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Nothing Fishy About It


Some novels tell stories through diary entries. Some, through e-mails. Some, though letters. Salmon Fishing in the Yemen uses all of these, in addition to interrogations, newspaper reports and more. What ought to have been a shapeless hodge-podge is instead a charming first novel.

It deals with the London-based Dr Alfred Jones, a fisheries scientist, asked to implement a project at the whim of an influential sheikh to introduce the pleasures of salmon fishing to the citizens of the Yemen. Also involved is the charming Harriet, working as consultant. Though Dr Jones pooh-poohs the idea, the Prime Minister’s director of communications sees this as a way to divert the media’s attention, showcasing Anglo-Yemeni cultural and scientific co-operation. Subplots involve Dr Jones’ strained relationship with his career-obsessed wife and Harriet’s concern over the fate of her boyfriend, a soldier in the Iraq.

As a satire on the habits of media-savvy politicians, it works well; as a novel, there’s no denying that most characters are a bit flat and the narrative devices wear thin after a while. (Perhaps to offset this, Torday opts for a farcical and then bittersweet ending.) Adjust your expectations, and it’ll make for a diverting evening.

Worth your while? Yes, if all you’ve been reading lately are novels dealing with the existential angst of alienated characters at war with soulless universe.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Black Literature


Baffled, middle-aged Irishman confronts the ghosts of his past in a lyrically-written account peppered with dark revelations. Sounds like a new book by John Banville – only, this is a mystery novel written by debutant Benjamin Black (whose real name, by the way, is – er – John Banville).

Set primarily in 1950s Dublin, Christine Falls introduces us to pathologist Garret Quirke who discovers, late one drunken night, that his pediatrician brother-in-law is falsifying the death certificate of a young woman who’s died during childbirth. His investigations lead him to the “confusion, mistakes, damage” related to his deceased wife, daughter and members of his extended family, all centered on a Catholic orphanage in Boston.

Since this is Banville, after all, the prose is a delight: superbly-crafted sentences revealing interior and exterior landscapes that, at times, afford an almost sensuous pleasure. (The author’s formidable vocabulary, so clearly on display in his other books, creeps in occasionally: consider the word ‘phthisic’, for example.) There is, too, a masterly pattern to the release of information, and the resonances between past and present. Quirke is an interesting and intriguing creation whose befuddlement and melancholy waft off the page.

Worth your while? Perfect for the dark monsoon days that, we’re told, will be here soon.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Lively Lives

Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa

Marias says in his prologue to this collection of quirky profiles that he wanted to treat “well-known literary figures as if they were fictional characters” – and he does this through a series of oblique glances at some literary icons. The author insists that nothing here is invented, though he concedes that some episodes have been “embellished”.

And so we have cheeky, affectionate and sometimes sly essays that concern themselves with the sadness of Turgenev and Mann; the silence of Djuna Barnes; the post-gaol life of Oscar Wilde; the death of Mishima; and the poses of Joyce, among others. What he’s doing, of course, is using small entryways to provide potted biographies -- the-profile-as-short-story, as it were.

Somewhat disappointingly, Marias isn’t too interested here in the prose and concerns of these writers, but speaks instead of how events (some well-known, others not) and traits have influenced their lives. There’s no academic posturing: for instance, the essay on Kipling forgoes any debate of whether he’s an unabashed colonialist or not. He saves the best for last, however: the essay on writers’ images is quite delightful.

Worth your while? Not to be taken too seriously, which makes it a perfectly agreeable companion during long commutes.