Tentacle – Rita Indiana (tr. Achy Obejas)

A quick glance at author Rita Indiana’s profile shows that she is a Dominican music composer, producer and key figure in contemporary Caribbean literature. It also tells us that her novel Tentacle has already won a prestigious prize.

Now translated into English by Achy Obejas and published by the wonderful And Other Stories (through whom I discovered one of my favourite authors Deborah Levy), both the cover and the blurb were enticing enough to catch my eye. Well then, what about the content within the pages?

It was excellent.

Here’s why…

Tentacle

When the book opens we are in the future in 2027 in Santo Domingo the Dominican Republic. Acilde, the central character in the book, is working as a maid in Esther Escudero’s house.

It soon becomes apparent that we are in some kind of post-apocalyptic world with an environmental disaster having occurred much earlier. A virus has plagued the other part of the island, and Esther’s house has a mechanism by which anyone infected by the virus can be detected and shot down.

Recognizing the virus in the black man, the security mechanism in the tower releases a lethal gas and simultaneously informs the neighbors, who will avoid the building’s entrance until the automatic collectors patrolling the streets and avenues pick up the body and disintegrate it.

Acilde, meanwhile, was not always a maid. She was a prostitute at the El Mirador with a body like that of a fifteen year old boy. That’s how she meets Eric – Esther’s right hand man.

Eric convinces Acilde to work in Esther’s house as a maid in return for which she will get the opportunity to attend culinary school.

But Acilde has a greater desire – to transition into a man. At first she discovers a valuable sea anemone in one of Esther’s rooms (valuable because all other marine creatures have been destroyed in an environmental catastrophe). Her initial plan – to steal and sell the anemone, the proceeds of which she would use to buy Rainbow Brite. This is a drug that allows sex change without surgery.

But she changes her mind. Subsequent events compel Acilde to flee Esther’s although Eric later secures the Rainbow Brite and helps Acilde in her transformation into a man.

All of this pretty much takes place in the first chapter.

In the alternating chapter, the first of which is deliciously titled ‘Psychic Goya’, the focus shifts to Argenis, a budding artist, who soon realizes that the classic art school in which he studied has not much use when it comes to contemporary art.

At the School of Fine Arts, a public institution with a budget even smaller than the local barbershop’s, the professors – for whom there was no art after Picasso – were proud of Argenis’ technical expertise and Catholic themes and predicted a successful and prosperous future for him.

But when he finished at the School of Fine Arts and got his father to send him to the School of Design at Altos de Chavon, it was a different story. His fluency with perspective and proportion wasn’t worth a dime. His classmates were rich kids with Macs and digital cameras who talked about Fluxus, video art, video action, and contemporary art.

Down on luck, and fired from his job (communicating tarot readings over the telephone), Argenis is recruited by Giorgio Menicucci and his wife Linda for their Sosua project to raise funds and repopulate the sea with marine life.

Argenis, meanwhile, is the archetypal misogynist with dreams of sleeping with Linda, not to mention harbouring thoughts bordering on racism.

On an expedition, Argenis gets stung by a sea anemone. This leads to a situation where he is leading two lives – one in Giorgio’s house as part of the group of other artists also enlisted for the project, and the other way back in the 1600s as part of a band of buccaneers skinning hides.

The stories of Acilde and Argenis alternate between chapters and then the two very cleverly merge.

Acilde, now a man, is also leading several lives, all part of the grand plan to rebuild marine life and save the environment. But while, Acilde is able to effortlessly move between his various selves, Argenis is driven mad by them.

All these ingredients make Tentacle a very potent read. The book is just 130 pages, but it’s a hybrid of time travel, art, sex and politics all which Rita Indiana seamlessly and with great imagination mixes together to create a heady brew.

The obvious themes are the fluidity of gender, and the impact of environmental disasters. But Indiana also manages to throw in others such as the place of art in the world and the perception of contemporary art.

Despite the strangeness of the overall tale, within its confines, the story has a rationality and lucidity that is unmistakable.  Moreover, Indiana’s prose is vibrant with enough chutzpah to drive the narrative forward.

Overall, this was a wonderful read and one that is a strong contender for my Best of the Year list.

 

The Spoilt City (Vol. 2 of The Balkan Trilogy) – Olivia Manning

Olivia Manning’s The Balkan Trilogy has been one of my reading highlights so far this year and is sure to make my Best of 2019 list.

Although I finished reading the trilogy in February, I have lagged in posting reviews of them.

I had already written about the first book in the trilogy called The Great Fortune.

The second book – The Spoilt City – takes off from where the first book ends.

Balkan 2

Guy and Harriet Pringle are now settled in their flat in Bucharest. But they are not alone. Yakimov, who had installed himself in their flat in the first novel, is still living with them, a fact that irritates Harriet greatly.

The problem is that Guy whose basic nature revolves around befriending people is not inclined in giving him the boot, and when it comes down to it, Harriet realizes that she does not have the heart to do so either.

So Yakimov stays on. And his craving for rich food and drinks only gets more intense even as his finances deteriorate, and the political and economic environment in Bucharest starts getting worse.

Meanwhile, there is another guest who is installed in the Pringles’ flat. But he is in hiding, and even Yakimov is not aware of it at the time.

On a broader scale, Germany’s advance in Europe gains ground. Romania decides to ally itself, albeit reluctantly with the Germans. But it’s hardly hunky dory. A key Romanian region, Transylvania – is annexed by the Hungarians, and while Romania seethes, it still kowtows to Germany which rationalizes these developments saying it’s for the greater good.

Over the course of the novel, more such Romanian regions are annexed – all for a greater cause as highlighted by Germany. But it angers the Romanian people and so looking for someone to blame, increase their cries for the abdication of the King.

Against this political backdrop, the private lives of the Pringles and their friends and acquaintances play out.

As was the case in the first novel, the Pringles’ marriage continues to remain the centre of focus in the second book too.

As the war picks up pace and the scenario gets incredibly tense and uncertain, the position of the English people in the city becomes all the more precarious. Especially when the calls for the abdication of the King gather momentum – he was a King whom the British supported.

She began to think of England and their last sight of the looped white cliffs, the washed white and blue of the sky, the sea glittering and chopped by the wind. They should have been stirred by the sight, full of regrets, but they had turned their backs on it, excited by change and their coming life together. Guy had said they would return home for Christmas. Asked how they took life, they would have said: ‘any way it comes.’ Chance and uncertainty were part of it. The last thing she would have wanted for them was a settled life lived peaceably in one town. Now her attitude had changed. She had begun to long for safety.

At a time when many of the people begin to leave, Guy insists on staying on which frustrates Harriet. Guy is intent on keeping the summer school open even when the number of students attending his classes dwindles substantially.

There are many more points about Guy that continue to irritate Harriet, although by now she is used to his personality. Although Guy’s basic nature of gregariousness, accepting anyone into his circle does not really change, Harriet begins to view him in a different light, compared to how she looked upon their situation in the earlier novel.

She is beginning to get a hang of Guy’s motives and what drives him although she does not always necessarily agree with it. Guy continues to not give Harriet the attention that she expects as a married couple.

Becoming conditioned to Guy’s preoccupation, she was learning the resort of her own reflections. With him, in any case, talk was too general for intimacy. He despised the metaphysical and the personal. He did not gossip. She was beginning to believe that what he had lacked was a fundamental interest in the individual – a belief that would astonish him were she to accuse him. But she did not accuse him. Once she believed that finding him, she had found everything; now she was not so sure. But here they were wrecked together on the edge of Europe as on an island and she was learning to keep her thoughts to herself.

Towards the end, however, for once Guy decides to put Harriet’s interest above his when things in Bucharest reach a head and they have no choice but to evacuate.

Once again, Olivia Manning has done a marvelous job of depicting a city on the brink of a war, the great amount of uncertainty in people’s lives, and yet the belief that maybe, just maybe the war will not reach them. Not just its people, the city itself is decaying.

Rumania then had been sleek and prosperous, a land of plenty. Even this café, one of the cheapest, had given plates of olives, cheese and gherkins when one bought a glass of wine. Now those things were scarce. She seemed to remember the water, beneath its haze of heat, as translucent as crystal. Now it smelt of weed. The crusted surf round the café held captive floating bottles, orange-peel, match boxes and paper bags. As for the café itself, it reflected in its grayish weathered timbers, its crippled chairs, its dirty table papers, the decay of the whole country.

She’s also adept at highlighting the shifting loyalties during such times. For instance, in the first volume Harriet and Bella become good friends, at a time when Romania considered England its ally and the English were treated with respect in Bucharest.

That changes in the second novel. With the cry for the abdication of the King getting louder, the English who had supported the King, also find themselves at the receiving end. And this spills over to ordinary friendships too. Bella is now afraid of being seen pally with Harriet publicly. Harriet, intelligent and perceptive, is of course quick to adapt to this changed reality.

The same cannot be said for Yakimov though. Yakimov is naïve enough to assume that war has no impact on friendships forged before its outbreak. That particular section in the novel is quite harrowing when he turns to an old German friend for help, who is now a high ranked officer in the Nazi party. His meeting with him and the outcome thereafter, while riveting, was laced with dread.

In the meanwhile, some more English characters come into play including Professor Pinkrose, and as events in Bucharest begin to reach boiling point, things come to head forcing all the English including the Pringles into action.

All in all, Vol. 2 of The Balkan Trilogy was compelling and absorbing paving the way for events to unfold in the third volume.

The Spoilt City

 

 

 

 

 

The Ivory Grin, The Barbarous Coast & The Doomsters – Ross Macdonald

I can easily say that I have become something of a Ross Macdonald addict. The first book in the Lew Archer series that I read and was impressed by was The Way Some People Die (the third in the Lew Archer series). That novel was great in terms of plot, superb characterization, and in the evocation of California.

It was my intention to stick to the order in the series, although that is strictly not necessary. However, on a short trip to London some years ago, I bought Archer #13 called Black Money and couldn’t resist delving right into it. I learnt that it Macdonald considered that book his finest achievement, and I agree that Black Money was brilliant. I also learnt later that in some way it was a retelling of The Great Gatsby, a novel Macdonald had a high opinion of, although that was a connect I did not make at the time.

I needed some comfort reads for the month and Macdonald fit the bill perfectly. I ended up reading three this time, and stuck more or less to the order.

Here, I have decided to post short write-ups for each in a single post rather than go in for a lengthy review of the three separately.

So here goes…

Macdonald

The Ivory Grin

This is the fourth novel in the Lew Archer series.

In The Ivory Grin, private detective Lew Archer is paid a visit by a tough woman who calls herself Una Larkin. Una wants Archer to trace her maid Lucy who used to work at her place.

Archer’s immediate instincts are that he is being taken for a ride as Una concocts a cock-and-bull story of why she wants Lucy tailed.

Una refuses to divulge her motives but eventually Archer becomes curious enough to accept the assignment.

Archer follows Lucy into Bella City, a run-down place filled with desolate houses, ramshackle factories, restaurants and cheap motels. It is a place with a clear divide between the affluent and the low income groups.

Main Street was loud and shiny with noon traffic moving bumper to bumper. I turned left on East Hidalgo Street and found a parking space in the first block. Housewives black, brown, and sallow were hugging parcels and pushing shopping carts on the sidewalk. Above them a ramshackle house, with paired front windows like eyes demented by earthquake memories, advertised Rooms for Transients on one side, Palm Reading on the other. A couple of Mexican children, boy and girl, strolled by hand in hand in a timeless noon on their way to an early marriage.

Archer tails Lucy but she is murdered and Archer finds a newspaper clip in her motel room announcing a US$ 5,000 reward for any person who comes forward with information on the whereabouts of a wealthy widow’s son Charles Singleton.

Clearly, these two cases are connected and Lew Archer makes it his mission to find out how.

Meanwhile, Lucy’s boyfriend Alex is arrested for her murder although Archer is not fully convinced.

There are also many characters enter the fray, but one of the most notable is Inspector Brake who is all too keen to arrest Alex and has many sharp exchanges with Archer.

The Ivory Grin is superbly plotted. It is a tale of fear and money and is tightly woven. The dialogue crackles.

Macdonald is also great in his descriptions and evocation of a small time town such as Bella City – the physical and wretched character or lack of character of such places and the pronounced divide between the people based on money and social standing. And the various characters peppered throughout the novel are also richly drawn.

Plus, Lew Archer is a wonderful creation as a detective. What is fascinating is that we don’t know much about him but enough to gauge that he is world weary but compassionate and a man who listens. He is the lens through whom the other characters, who occupy the centrestage, are filtered.

The Barbarous Coast

This is the sixth novel in the Lew Archer series.

Once again, Macdonald has written a complex plot and this time the spotlight is on Hollywood.

Archer is summoned by Clarence Bassett, the manager of an exclusive country club for the wealthy. While he is entering the club he notices a young and hot-tempered man having an altercation with the guard Tony Torres.

Bassett wants Archer to locate the whereabouts of Hester Campbell, a star diver at the club, who is now missing. The hotheaded young man, in the meanwhile, is Hester’s husband from Canada who accuses Bassett of having an affair with her.

Archer subsequently learns that Hester is somehow mixed up with the ‘mob’ and is with Lance Leonard – Tony Torres’ nephew. Tony Torres, a retired boxer, had taken Lance under his wing and trained him as a boxer, before Lance gives him the boot.

The deeper Archer investigates, he realizes that a lot of the developments are somehow tied up to the murder of another young woman Gabrielle Torres a couple of years – a case which never got solved. Gabrielle was also Hester’s good friend.

In addition to this characters, we are introduced to many more – Simon Graff who is a successful filmmaker and a resident of the country club, his wife Isobel Graff, and some mobsters Leroy Frost and Carl Stern.

That’s the basic outline of the plot.

In typical Macdonald style, there are various threads that are woven together to form a complex story. Having said that, while this is still a solid novel, it was not as strong as The Ivory Grin. At one point it felt that there were too many characters and the story sagged a bit especially in the middle. But all in all this was a worthwhile read and I have yet to come across a Macdonald that hasn’t worked.

The writing remains as sharp as ever though…Here is Archer describing Isobel Graff…

A taste of whiskey had changed her mood, as a touch of acid will change the color of blue litmus paper.

And then sometime later, here’s an exchange…

“You are joking. You must want money. You work for money, don’t you?”

“I want it very badly,” I said. “But I can’t take this money. It wouldn’t belong to me, I would belong to it. It would expect me to do things, and I would have to do them.” 

The Doomsters

The Doomsters is the seventh novel in the Lew Archer series and in a way significant because it is this novel where Macdonald departs from the influence of Chandler and Hammett. In terms of the themes and psychological depth, it certainly felt different from The Ivory Grin and The Barbarous Coast.

One morning Archer gets a visit from Carl Hallman, a man in his thirties. We soon learn that Carl has escaped from a mental asylum where he claims he was committed by his family against his wishes. Carl is not the only one who has escaped though. The other man to flee with him is heroin addict Tom Rica, whom Archer had mentored many years ago.

Carl’s mother committed suicide many years ago, and soon after his father dies of a heart attack the same evening that he had a vicious quarrel with him, his brother Jerry also being present at the time.

His behaviour is what convinces Jerry to confine him in an asylum and he forces Carl’s wife Mildred to sign the papers.

The beginning of this Hallman family history is narrated to us through Carl while in conversation with Archer. Meanwhile, Archer is of the view that Carl needs to go back to the hospital first, and he would carry out the investigation on his behalf outside. Archer even drives him to the hospital but before that Carl manages to hoodwink Archer, steal his car and flee.

We learn that Carl has been spotted on the Hallman family ranch with a gun. It’s the same ranch where his brother Jerry and his wife Zinnie reside. Since, the parents are dead, Jerry and Zinnie stand to gain from the estate.

We also learn that Carl’s wife Mildred is the only one who believes in him and ready to defend him no matter what.

Soon another Hallman is murdered, and the blame for it falls on Carl who is still in hiding.

Archer is convinced that Carl is not the suspect, and sets out to find out how the recent murder is linked to Carl’s parents’ death many years ago. In the process, many skeletons in the Hallman closet begin to tumble out.

That is the bare outline of the story.

It is this novel where Archer’s role also evolves. He is not only a private investigator but also akin to a therapist, always listening but not immediately ready to judge. He understands that there is never a stark black and while, but in fact several shades of grey when it comes to a person’s personality.

In that sense, it is probably more Freudian in tone and plot as compared to his earlier novels, and marks the turning point, as I understand it, in terms of psychological depth, insight and the notion of deep family secrets – themes that recur in the later novels as well.

I was an ex-cop, and the words came hard. I had to say them, though, if I didn’t want to be stuck for the rest of my life with the old black-and-white picture, the idea that there were just good people and bad people, and everything would be hunky-dory if the good people locked up the bad ones or wiped them out with small personalized nuclear weapons.

I’ll end with another quote…

We passed a small-boat harbor, gleaming white on blue, and a long pier draped with fishermen. Everything was as pretty as a postcard. The trouble with you, I said to myself: you’re always turning over the postcards and reading the messages on the underside. Written in invisible ink, in blood, in tears, with a black border around them, with postage due, unsigned, or signed with a thumbprint.

The Doomsters was another excellent novel in the Lew Archer series and I look forward to the next one in line – The Galton Case – which has touted as one of his best.