Foreign from centre to circumference

Can-cans, Cats and Cities of Ash
by Mark Twain

This is in the Penguin Great Journeys series, so it’s an abridged version of a longer travelogue, in this case The Innocents Abroad, Twain’s 1869 account of a cruise across the Atlantic and around the Mediterranean.

I love Twain’s writing style – it’s simple language but excitable. He’s super enthusiastic to learn about the places he visits and to see in person places he has elevated to legendary status. His reactions seem to be genuine and honest. Which unfortunately includes some negative thoughts that are kinda racist.

“Elsewhere we have found foreign-looking things and foreign-looking people, but always with things and people intermixed that we were familiar with before, and so the novelty of the situation lost a deal of its force. We wanted something thoroughly and uncompromisingly foreign – foreign from top to bottom – foreign from centre to circumference – foreign inside and outside and all around – nothing any where about it to dilute its foreignness – nothing to remind us of any other people or any other land under the sun. And lo! in Tangier we have found it.”

Continue reading “Foreign from centre to circumference”

White people don’t care where they send you

The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir who got Trapped in an IKEA Wardrobe

The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir who got Trapped in an IKEA Wardrobe
by Romain Puértolas
translated from French by Sam Taylor

This book has already been a huge success in France and the publishers of the English translation are clearly hoping for similar sales figures. I hope they get them, even though I didn’t love it.

It would be wrong to say I am ambivalent about this book – it does not invite ambivalence. Rather, I both loved aspects of it and was frustrated or disappointed by others. It could well be a bit of a Marmite book.

At first glance – especially for the first few chapters – this is a very silly comedy, one that did make me laugh (or rather, snigger) a few times, though it’s not entirely to my comedic taste. Then, just as I was struggling to decide how I felt about all this slapstick silliness (it has a very Clouseau vibe) and the rather tricky main character, some serious issues get thrown into the mix (primarily human trafficking/illegal immigration) and, for me, it all picked up considerably. I know from online reviews that some people have objected to this combination of serious and silly but I actually thought that was handled fairly well – that was not my objection.

“A fakir by trade, Ajatashatru Oghash (pronounced A-jar-of-rat-stew-oh-gosh!) had decided to travel incognito for his first trip to Europe. For this occasion he had swapped his ‘uniform’, which consisted of a loincloth shaped like an enormous nappy, for a shiny grey suit and a tie rented for peanuts from Dilawar (pronounced Die, lawyer!), an old man from the village.”

It’s a difficult novel to summarise but the title does a fairly good job of the start! Ajatashatru Oghash Rathod has travelled from his home village in Rajhastan to Paris to buy a bed of nails from IKEA. He’s brought only a counterfeit €100 note, his real funds having been entirely spent on his airfare and visa, which I felt nicely set up the balancing act between his poverty and his shaky morals. When he gets trapped in a display model of a wardrobe in IKEA, it of course happens to be one that is earmarked for hasty transport (i.e. it isn’t disassembled) to England, where the fakir is discovered in a lorry with five illegal immigrants.

This neatly opens the door for an exploration – a largely scathing one – of border controls in a few different western European countries through the eyes of someone – an Indian with a legal Schengen visa – who doesn’t already know their ins and outs (such as the fact that the UK is not Schengen). One of Puértolas’ many former careers was as a French border guard and his inside knowledge shows, in a good way. He clearly has great sympathy for those who leave behind unimaginable poverty, hunger and disease in search of a better life, and great hatred for those who take advantage of such desperation. There are some tough details in this book, though they are never lingered on.

“It is not the fear of being beaten that twists our guts. No, because on this side of the Mediterranean we do not suffer beatings. It is the fear of being sent back to the country from which we have come, or, worse, being sent to a country we don’t know, because the white people don’t care where they send you.”

So I appreciated the subject matter, I found the story very readable and when the comedy got a little less broad it was more to my taste (or perhaps it even grew on me)…but I still didn’t love it. I might argue that the serious issues were handled a little too lightly and that they deserved to be explored more deeply, but then that would be a very different book. In fact, I am hopeful that the comedic tone of this novel will bring the issues surrounding human trafficking and illegal immigration to a wider conversation. (Indeed, at the hairdresser I spotted that this book is one of British Vogue magazine’s picks for their summer reads, which is a good start.)

My problem then is that the fakir’s reactions to his unlikely journey are trite, his opinions of the world are voiced clumsily and I never could decide if the book is racist. Certainly, it uses racial/national/gender stereotypes for comedic effect – for instance, the inability of any European to pronounce Indian names correctly – and up to a point that’s fine, but I often felt the line had been crossed.

I suppose that leaves me not ambivalent but also not decided.

L’extraordinaire voyage du fakir qui était resté coincé dans une armoire Ikea published 2013 by Le Dillettant.
This translation published July 2014 by Harvill Secker.

Source: This book was kindly sent to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.

An infinite sadness took hold of him

Dan Yack

Dan Yack
by Blaise Cendrars
translated from French by Nina Rootes

Probably the most serendipitous book find of my life was in the Oxford branch of Blackwells Bookshop about eight years ago. From their bargain bins I randomly picked up a book I had never heard of by an author I had never heard of and I completely loved it; in fact it’s one of my top three or four books ever. That book was The Confessions of Dan Yack by Blaise Cendrars, which is actually the second book about Dan Yack, so for years I had been intending to read this earlier novel but somehow it just sat there on the TBR.

This is a stunning piece of writing. If everything was written this way I would probably find it frustrating but in this case it works. It blends the poetic and the banal, even baseness. A couple of pages might include high adventure, stream of consciousness, erotica, boredom, detailed descriptions of settings and switch between multiple points of view.

“The Neva flowed past at eye-level. The rushing current swept the timber-barges down at full speed; crouched and menacing, they ploughed through the close-packed waves that were ruffled up the wrong way by the harsh wind of dawn. Sudden shivers rippled the wet fur of the river as it stretched itself nervously and arched its back.”

In its 130 pages we follow multi-millionaire playboy Dan Yack from St Petersburg to Liverpool to the Antarctic to Chile. Yack is an eccentric and initially appears frivolous and unthinking but gradually reveals both good business sense and a good heart. However, I never did completely warm to him – the combination of seal hunting and his never having read a book didn’t exactly make him my ideal hero – but I was certainly intrigued.

“Dan Yack suddenly fell silent. He felt uneasy again. His legs sagged. He was overwhelmed by fatigue. An infinite sadness took hold of him, drained him, blew him up again, oppressed him.”

I suppose you might call this a Modernist take on the adventure novel. The bulk of the story centres around Yack deciding to treat his heartbreak by spending a winter in the Antarctic. On a whim he invites three impoverished artists he meets at the end of a long drunken night of debauchery to join him.

I suppose one of the attractions for me of this book was the Antarctic setting. Cendrars ran away to sea as a teenager so he was almost certainly writing from true experience of the endless days turning into endless nights. Certainly that section had many of the same details and much of the same unease, even terror, of other books I have read with an Antarctic setting.

“Nine times out of ten, the weather was overcast, but when it was not, the night outside was like a fairyland. The icy cold was always intoxicating…sometimes, there is an austral dawn that shakes out its crackling draperies at the level of the ice; it is yellow, green, shot with fugitive gleams and punch-flames.”

The storyline is incredible, in a literal sense, but that’s almost beside the point. Cendrars unveils the human psyche, the revelation is what truly matters to Yack, not what happens to him. But while that sounds terribly serious, the book is actually a lot of fun, with an odd sense of humour, or at least a sense of the ridiculous.

“Deene had to wait a while before he could get a word in because a little nasal phonograph was filling the narrow cabin with a young, charmingly artificial female voice. Dan Yack swore it was a buxom little blonde, wiggling her hips as she sang…
‘Sir,’ the captain began determinedly, ‘I—’
‘Wait,’ said Dan Yack, ‘let me change the cylinder. It’s amazing…Can you see the old tart who’s singing now, Captain?…The sweat’s rolling down from under her ridiculous wig…She’s wearing thick blue stockings with garters at the knee, I adore that! What a marvellous invention!…Wait a minute, I’m going to have you listen to the cries of a sea-lion that’s having its throat cut.'”

While Modernist, this is certainly not an especially modern story. It is full of sexism and racism, not to mention the hunting (Yack’s family fortune is largely based on whale hunting). And yet I loved it. I was utterly spellbound. Huge credit must go to the translator here because every sentence was perfect. I quickly gave up picking out quotes because every line is quotable.

“Outside the storm raged. A sheet of corrugated iron was ripped from the roof. Then a pile of barrels came crashing against the door. The wind besieged the house.
It raged for many days and nights.
The first blizzard.
A white-out.
Winter.”

Apparently Cendrars was one of the founders of, the pioneers, of Modernism and it seems a shame that he is not read widely. I seriously must not wait another eight years to pick up the other Cendrars title on my TBR.

First published 1927 by Editions Denoël. This translation published 1987 by Peter Owen.

Source: I bought this secondhand, probably via Abe Books.

Challenges: This counts toward the 2013 Translation Challenge and the 2013 TBR Pile Challenge.

Beseeching at the portals of the soft source

On the Road
by Jack Kerouac

On the Road

People have been telling me to read this book since I was…18? And I haven’t put it off deliberately. I even read a couple of other Kerouacs in the meantime. But I suppose the legend of this being written in one unbroken outpouring, in fact literally typed on one great long roll of paper, suggested to me something impenetrable and rambling, which this is not. Partly because that legend is not entirely true…

So much happens in this book (I hesitate to call it a novel, due to its autofiction nature) and the writing style is so open and honest it hardly matters that it’s not tightly plotted. How could it be? This is the story of a few years in the life of Kerouac’s alter ego Sal Paradise as he criss-crosses North America searching for the experience, the moment of truth that will break his writer’s block. I don’t know which parts are “real” but that really isn’t the point. The result is a beautiful, sad, enlightening book.

“Soon it got dusk, a grapy dusk, a purple dusk over tangerine groves and long melon fields; the sun the color of pressed grapes, slashed with burgundy red, the fields the color of love and Spanish mysteries. I stuck my head out the window and took deep breaths of the fragrant air. It was the most beautiful of all moments.”

The language is perfectly evocative and really shows Kerouac/Paradise’s love for his country, for the road, for people. At least to begin with. Because while the narrative starts off full of youthful excitement and wild enthusiasm, with Paradise throwing himself recklessly into every experience, the moments of awareness when a situation isn’t working out add up to produce a Paradise who is a little older and wiser, sadder and careworn, because he actually does care and recognises the value of caring.

“Boys and girls in America have such a sad time together; sophistication demands that they submit to sex immediately without proper preliminary talk. Not courting talk – real straight talk about souls, for life is holy and every moment precious.”

Ah, the girls. I can see how this book might have been shocking in the 1950s. Now, of course, sex and drugs (mostly cannabis) and booze aren’t at all shocking but there is still most definitely bad behaviour in the way the thrill-seekers treat their friends/hosts wherever they go. Most of which is the influence of Dean Moriarty. Dean is a restless trouble-maker who lives life to the full and Sal hero-worships him, even though most of his friends say straight out that they don’t trust Dean, and with good reason. Dean is the start and end of the book but we don’t actually meet him until over 100 pages in.

“I could hear Dean, blissful and blabbering and frantically rocking. Only a guy who’s spent five years in jail can go to such maniacal helpless extremes; beseeching at the portals of the soft source, mad with a completely physical realization of the origins of life-bliss.”

Sal himself, though, I loved as a character. He feels everything so deeply, from the heights of passion to the depths of despair. He wants experience and he certainly gets it, travelling any way he can, sometimes working his way, sometimes living among bums penniless and scrounging or even stealing to get by. He falls in love multiple times but to some extent he just loves life.

There’s an interesting attitude to race in this book. Considering the date I can forgive some of the race language used but I can’t quite figure out how to feel about Sal’s love of coloured people. It sounds like a good thing, and he certainly mixes with them and loves their music (the jazz, of course) and their women; but he seems to see them as exotic underdogs, as if their colour defines them. When he declares a wish to be one of them it’s shockingly naïve, showing no awareness of racism, of struggle, of the fact that while he is choosing to slum it in their company knowing that he has a comfortable home near his beloved New York to return to, most poor people did not choose that life and have to struggle their whole lives, not just for a few days as a new experience.

But I can forgive all that for the sheer joy of the language. You can’t help but fall in love with travel and America when reading this book, even as Sal is falling out of love with both. I marked so many quotes while reading this. I will leave you with a few of them.

“All that old road of the past unreeling dizzily as if the cup of life had been overturned and everything gone mad. My eyes ached in nightmare day.”

“Yang, yang, the kids started to cry. Dense, mothlike eternity brooded in the crazy brown parlor with the sad wallpaper, the pink lamp, the excited faces.”

“That last day in Frisco…the great buzzing and vibrating hum of what is really America’s most excited city – and overhead the pure blue sky and the joy of the foggy sea that always rolls in at night to make everybody hungry for food and further excitement. I hated to leave…With frantic Dean I was rushing through the world without a chance to see it.”

“We turned at a dozen paces, for love is a duel, and looked at each other for the last time.”

First published 1957 by Viking Press.
Reprinted in Penguin Classics 2000.

Source: I think I bought this for myself several years ago.

Challenges: This counts towards the 2013 TBR Pile Challenge.

That strangers may not loose their road and have it to goe back againe

Through England on a Side-Saddle
by Celia Fiennes

I picked this up in a rare glow of national pride, what with certain sporting stuff going on. It’s an odd little book. Published as part of Penguin’s “English Journeys” series, it’s an extract from the 1698 travelogue of a rich Englishwoman travelling on horseback up to Newcastle and down to Cornwall. Intrepid, I think the word is.

Through England on a Side-Saddle

The language takes a little getting used to. Not that the words are unfamiliar, but Penguin has left the original spelling and grammar in place, with only the occasional translation in square brackets. It’s jarring but once in the flow I found myself surprisingly able to cope with the same word being spelled three different ways within a paragraph!

This travelogue was written up later from a detailed journal that Fiennes kept on the road, and it suffers a little bit from listing the same few facts about each place: number of churches (I love that this was a reasonably reliable indicator of population!), distance in miles, quality of roads, major trade. But even these facts were sometimes fascinating: in 1698 Liverpool was so small it had only one church! Compare that with Newcastle-upon-Tyne (5 churches) and Bristol (19 churches and a cathedral) – even Wells, now England’s smallest city, had 2 churches and a cathedral! Also, roadsigns were a brand new idea:

“they have one good thing in most parts off this principality [Lancashire] that at all cross wayes there are Posts with Hands pointing to each road with the names of the great town or market towns that it leads to, which does make up for the length of the miles that strangers may not loose their road and have it to goe back againe”

(I so badly want to take a red pen to that now!)

More importantly, Fiennes has occasional flashes of wit and humour that make the drier sections worthwhile. Take, for instance, her comments on St Winfreds Well:

“its a cold water and cleare and runs off very quick so that it would be a pleasant refreshment in the sumer to washe ones self in it, but its shallow not up to the waste so its not easye to dive and washe in; but I thinke I could not have been persuaded to have gone in unless might have had curtains to have drawn about some part of it to have shelter’d from the streete, for the wett garments are no covering to the body; but there I saw abundance of the devout papists on their knees all around the Well; poor people are deluded into an ignorant blind zeale and to be pity’d by us that have the advantage of knowing better”

Fiennes is travelling alone, with local guides (and, I suspect, luggage carriers) in each region. She at no point refers to being a woman travelling without husband or other family, which perhaps is a product of her being rich and well-connected enough that she knows people all over the country (and often describes their houses and gardens lengthily, another bit I found tedious). She makes a point of learning about local trades and industries, going into surprising detail about methods of coal mining, for example. She does, however, show a certain snobbery and prejudice, particularly towards the Scots when she briefly crosses the border:

“those houses are all kinds of Castles and they live great, tho’ in so nasty a way…one has little stomach to eate or use any thing as I have been told by some that has travell’d there; and I am sure I mett with a sample of it enough to discourage my progress farther in Scotland; I attribute it wholly to their sloth for I see they sitt and do little”

Overall I would say this is a fascinating historical document more than a good piece of writing but I am still interested in seeing what else is included in the “English Journeys” series.

The Journals of Celia Fiennes first published 1947 by the Cresset Press.
This selection published 2009 by Penguin Books.

Two worlds, one book

I’ll Never be Young Again
by Daphne du Maurier

This is an odd book, in some places brilliant and beautiful, in others disjointed and, frankly, a little far-fetched. Ever since I read Rebecca I have been making my way through the rest of du Maurier’s works and this is a typical example – a great writer not at her best but still captivating.

The book is divided into two distinct halves and they are so different they could almost be separate novellas. What they have in common is their narrator, an incredibly believably voiced Englishman called Richard. He is young, very young, and full of restless spirit. The book opens with him contemplating throwing himself off a bridge into the Thames. He is stopped by Jake, an older man who has just been released from prison and believes that life is for living. Together they travel around Europe. Richard veers wildly from enthusiasm to boredom, passionate about something one minute, the next whining that anything else would be better. Jake is greatly amused by Richard’s mood swings and youthful passion and teases him about them, so that gradually Richard becomes aware of himself, though it fails to change him.

This first half is essentially a picaresque adventure, with the men running away to sea, trekking through mountains on horseback and by foot, choosing where to go next one day at a time. It’s spirited and a little wild, with Jake’s constant assuredness the perfect foil to Richard’s naivety. In many ways it seemed unrealistic that a directionless, penniless youth would get to have this great adventure but maybe that reaction has more to do with how times have changed since this was written.

In the second half Richard settles himself in Paris to write a novel and meets a girl who he falls headlong in love with. His thoughts about her are so very familiar, such as his fear of commitment and desperation to spend every second with her, while not seeing how those might be contradictory. There’s an air of gentle mocking in these passages, it’s so clear to the reader that Richard is being ridiculous a lot of the time, but by this point you know him so well and he notices his own stupidity often enough that certainly my reaction was to smile at the follies of youth rather than be annoyed with him.

The relationship is followed very closely, with the ins and outs of Richard’s everyday life detailed, from what he eats for breakfast to how he copes with the cold or the heat at his desk. Paris and its changing seasons are described with great affection, even when Richard is in one of his more negative moods. What really stood out in this half was the realness of the narrative voice. Maybe that’s because it was a woman’s perspective of a young man during his first romance, subtly using his voice to express all the frustrations a woman feels. Maybe a man would be less impressed.

The end is very well done, delicately balanced between comedy and tragedy, and ties together the two parts in theory, but in practice I still felt they were worlds apart. Perhaps they were intended that way.

First published in 1932 by William Heinemann Ltd.