The Memory Police – Yoko Ogawa (tr. Stephen Snyder)

Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police has been shortlisted for this year’s International Booker Prize. While the book was released in its original language (Japanese) in 1994, it was translated into English and published last year – a gap of nearly 25 years. And yet nothing feels outdated about this novel, its themes are quite relevant even today.

At its very core, the theme in The Memory Police centers on disappearance and memory loss.

Our narrator is a woman earning her living by writing novels on an unnamed island. It’s a place where the Memory Police at regular intervals make things and all memories associated with them disappear. As soon as these objects are made to vanish, most residents easily forget them and no longer recall that they ever existed. But there are those who cannot forget. Thus, the Memory Police’s mandate also involves tracking and hunting down these people after which they are never heard of again.

The narrator’s mother was one of those whose memories remained intact and was therefore captured by the police. In the opening pages our narrator harks back to her childhood and recalls a particular moment with her mother when the latter displays a chest of drawers containing objects that no longer exist on the island. These objects – perfume bottle, ribbon, bell, stamp – fill our narrator with a sense of wonder but she cannot conjure up any memories, even though her mother is nostalgic about them. The fate of the narrator’s mother after her refusal to conform is not surprising and very soon the father, an ornithologist, is also whisked away.

Indeed, one of the first disappearances on the island the reader is introduced to is birds.

I think it’s fortunate that the birds were not disappeared until after my father died. Most people on the island found some other line of work quickly when a disappearance affected their job, but I don’t think that would have been the case for him. Identifying those wild creatures was his one true gift.

Meanwhile, in the present, our narrator is working on a novel and provides updates on its progress to her editor R. Upon realising that R also cannot erase his memories, she decides she has to hide him before he is found out by the police.

Enlisting the help of an old caretaker, who is like family, she builds a secret, functional room in her own house. R installs himself there and gradually adjusts to this new life.

The rest of the novel then revolves around the fate of all the three – the narrator, the caretaker and R – and whether they will be able to hold on to this secret.

Objects, meanwhile, continue to vanish at an alarming rate to the point where one of the disappearances impacts our narrator directly – novels (‘Men who start by burning books end by burning other men.’)

At first, she has no issues losing her memory of things and adjusting to the new normal. But this becomes increasingly difficult in her subsequent interactions with R, who coaxes and encourages her to understand the significance of her memories and value them.

This specifically comes to the fore when one of the objects made to vanish is photographs, an occurrence which disturbs R greatly.

As I was gathering all the albums and photos in the house, R made a desperate effort to stop me.

“Photographs are precious…They may be nothing more than scraps of paper, but they capture something profound. Light and wind and air, the tenderness or joy of the photographer, the bashfulness or pleasure of the subject. You have to guard these things forever in your heart. That’s why photographs are taken in the first place.”

“Yes, I know, and that’s why I’ve always been very careful with them. They brought back wonderful memories every time I looked at them, memories that made my heart ache. As I wander through my sparse forest of memories, photographs have been my most reliable compass. But it’s time to move on. It’s terrible to lose a compass, but I have no strength to resist the disappearances.”

Interspersed with this narrative is a glimpse into the novel, our narrator is writing. It’s about a young typist who has lost her voice, is in a relationship with her teacher and can only communicate by typing out the words.  But what begins as a simple love story morphs into something darker involving capture and submission. In terms of atmosphere and the theme of control there are similarities between our narrator’s novel and her real life. But other than that, I am not sure that this ‘novel within a novel’ really added much to the overall storytelling.

In stark contrast to the feral tone in Melchor’s Hurricane Season, Ogawa’s prose is haunting, quiet, reflective and yet suffused with enough tension to keep the reader heavily interested. One way of looking at the novel is that it is a statement on totalitarian regimes and their impact on ordinary people – there are those who adapt, those who resist and go into hiding. These are themes and reactions universal even today.

But other than the one chapter where our narrator visits the headquarters of the Memory Police and experiences firsthand the menacing and oppressive atmosphere of the place, the novel is more concerned with the significance of memory loss and what it means to people in everyday life.

Ultimately who stands to lose more – the people who easily forget and have nothing to hold on to, or those who remember and possibly carry a heavier burden because of it?

Hurricane Season – Fernanda Melchor (tr. Sophie Hughes)

Hurricane Season caught my eye as soon as it was published and the slew of positive reviews only fuelled my appetite. Not surprisingly, it has been shortlisted for this year’s International Booker Prize and widely touted to win it.

Right from the beginning, the pace of Hurricane Season never lets up. The novel is set in the village of La Matosa – a few miles from the town or city of Villa – a decrepit place of abject poverty dotted with roughly built shacks and surrounded by sugarcane fields.

In the first chapter, the shortest of the eight, a group of boys playing in the fields come across a corpse floating in the irrigation canal. The identity of the corpse is no big secret, the boys immediately identify it as that of the Witch.

The Witch is a highly reviled figure in the village, an object of malicious gossip and pretty much an outcast to most of La Matosa’s inhabitants.

They called her the Witch, the same as her mother; the Young Witch when she first started trading in curses and cures, and then, when she wound up alone, the year of the landslide, simply the Witch. If she’d had another name, scrawled on some time-worn, worm-eaten piece of paper maybe, buried at the back of one of those wardrobes that the old crone crammed full of plastic bags and filthy rags, locks of hair, bones, rotten leftovers, if at some point she’d been given a first name and last name like everyone else in town, well, no one had ever known it, not even the women who visited the house each Friday had ever heard her called anything else.

One of the rumours surrounding the Witch, which assumes mythical proportions, is the alleged wealth that she is concealing – a wealth that comprises gold and various other treasures, which she likely inherited from her mother the Old Witch after the latter murdered her husband. And yet while these tales of hidden wealth refuse to die down, they don’t somehow match up to the filthy conditions prevalent in her home.

The village, however, continues to be fascinated with the Witch. The women visit her home to consult her about a myriad of illnesses and also to discuss domestic issues, while the men get attracted to the drug fuelled parties she regularly hosts.

The murder of the Witch then forms the base upon which the bulk of the novel rests. After the first couple of chapters, we are presented with four different perspectives (and these are the longest chapters in the novel). Each of these narratives circles closer to the Witch’s murder, throwing more light, and illuminating the motives behind it.

But that is only the tip of the iceberg. What these narratives also do is paint a grim picture of an ugly village mired in poverty and crime, a brutal world where it is increasing difficult for its people to rise above their bleak circumstances.  

The central character in these four accounts is Luismi, a boy in his teens, and we are given an inkling of his involvement in the crime in the first narrative itself – that of his elder cousin Yesenia. Yesenia is the eldest of her siblings, brought up by their grandmother, who treats them poorly but dotes on her grandson Luismi the same way she doted on Luismi’s father. This results in a deep seated resentment towards Luismi as Yesenia laments her fate and tries to paint Luismi’s true colours to their grandmother but in vain.

The second chapter centers around Munra, who is Luismi’s stepfather and crippled by an accident. Although Luismi’s relationship with his mother is strained, he nevertheless resides with them. Through Munra, Luismi is depicted as a young man addicted to drugs that leaves him dazed most of the time and under the influence of a young girl who he shacks up with, a girl not to be trusted.

The third chapter focuses on this young girl Norma and we learn of the circumstances leading to how she ends up with Luismi. And the fourth account is that of Brando, Luismi’s friend and also complicit in the crime against the Witch.

Luismi is clearly the focal point in these chapters, and yet we are never given his perspective, we always see him through the lens of others. For the most part he comes across as completely drug addled and spaced out harbouring dreams of a job in an oil company promised to him by an ‘engineer friend’. And yet every narrative brings out a different side to him driving home the possibility that he is not as bad as he is made out to be.

Violence and foul language practically drips on every page. Men regularly hurl insults and beat women, and the younger girls are not spared from physical and sexual abuse either. It’s a toxic environment where the characters are caught up in a vicious circle of poverty and casual violence ingrained into their psyche with no hope of a better future. In the village of La Matosa particularly, the men hold no meaningful jobs and waste away in drugs, drink and prostitutes. The women latch on to men, get pregnant regularly but this only accentuates their woes as the burden of raising kids and holding on to meager paying jobs falls on them.

…what happened to her mother after a spell of going out at night in her flesh-coloured tights and her high heels, when from one day to the next her body would start to swell, reaching grotesque proportions before finally expelling a new child, a new sibling for Norma, a new mistake that generated a new set of problems for her mother, but above all, for Norma: sleepless nights, crushing tiredness, reeking nappies, mountains of sicky clothes, and crying, unbroken, ceaseless crying. Yet another open mouth demanding food and whingeing…

The only thriving establishments around La Matosa are highway dives and brothels, which are also magnets for drug peddlers.

Of the four narratives, the chapter on Norma and Brando are particularly disturbing and sometimes difficult to stomach – the one on Norma more so because it delves deeper into the deviant mind of a child molester.

And yet despite such a dark subject matter, Hurricane Season is brilliant and incredibly fascinating. Melchor’s prose is brutal, electrifying and hurtles at the reader like a juggernaut. The sentences are long and there are no paragraphs but that in no way makes the book difficult to read. Rather, this style propels the narrative forward and ratchets up the tension, always keeping the reader on the edge. A cleverly told tale with a compelling structure at its heart, Melchor’s vision is unflinching and fearless. She does not mince words but depicts a small claustrophobic world in the back of beyond just the way it is.

It’s a book that deserves its place on the International Booker shortlist.

A Month of Reading – May 2020

May turned out to be quite an incredible month in terms of quantity and quality of books I read while the lockdown continued. Here is a brief round-up…

Untold Night and Day – Bae Suah (tr. from the Korean by Deborah Smith)

The first book I read during the month, Bae Suah’s Untold Night and Day is a deliciously disorienting and strange book. At a basic level, the plot centers around Ayami, a woman who has been working at a nondescript audio theatre for two years. The theatre is now on the verge of being shut down and Ayami’s future is quite uncertain. But that is barely scratching the surface.

Throughout the novel, perspectives keep shifting, the book abounds with repetitions of descriptions (both people and places). The reader is never sure of standing on solid ground, a ground that keeps disintegrating. The novel is made up of four sections, and each section has something new in it while also echoing many elements of what has gone on before giving the novella a circular structure.

A large part of what makes the book so readable is Bae Suah’s writing. The prose is elegant and a pleasure to read and the repetitions only enhance its hypnotic quality. 

The Wall – Marlen Haushofer (tr. from the German by Shaun Whiteside)

The Wall is a powerful book about survival, self-renewal and the capacity to love. While holidaying in an Alpine hunting lodge, our unnamed narrator wakes up one day to an unimaginable catastrophe. She is possibly the last living person although she is yet to grasp the significance of this.

Against such a terrifying backdrop, the bulk of the book is all about how the narrator fights for survival and ekes out a living in the forest. The deep bond that she forms with her coterie of animals is very sensitively portrayed and is one of the highlights of the book. And there are some wonderful passages on existentialism and the meaning of life, love and caring, and the evolution of the physical and metaphysical selves. Ultimately, the narrator’s strength of will to forge ahead is what makes the book so beautiful.

A Far Cry from Kensington – Muriel Spark

I became a Spark convert last year when I read three of her novels – Memento Mori, The Girls of Slender Means and The Driver’s Seat, all wonderful. I hope to read more of her work this year and eventually make my way through the 22 novels she penned.

The world that Spark creates in her books is superbly off-kilter, with elements of strangeness mixed in with the ordinary. Beneath the surface, there is also a darker current running and this was evident in A Far Cry from Kensington too.

The novella is set in 1950s London. The protagonist Mrs Hawkins is a young widow staying in a guesthouse peopled with eccentric characters, the chief one being the Polish seamstress Wanda and this forms one plot point in the book. Further, Mrs Hawkins is a considered a capable woman working in publishing at a time when publishing jobs were much sought after. But then a dramatic encounter with the hack journalist Hector Bartlett ensues. Mrs Hawkins continuously labels him ‘pisseur de copie’ (meaning that Bartlett urinates bad prose), and this leads to some unexpected consequences.

In a little under 200 pages, Spark marries these two plot points and weaves a deft world which includes blackmail, a bizarre scheme involving a Box, and a dig at the publishing world where one pays a price for speaking the truth. This, then, is another superb Spark novel!

Winter in Sokcho – Elisa Shua Dusapin (tr. from the French by Aneesa Abbas Higgins)

Winter in Sokcho is a haunting, dreamlike novella set in the seaside town of Sokcho in the far northeastern part of South Korea and close to the border with its impenetrable neighbour. Our protagonist is a young woman working as a maid and cook in a dead end guesthouse and nothing much happens there until the arrival of an enigmatic French graphic artist Kerrand.

It’s all very atmospheric and the author wonderfully captures the remoteness of Sokcho which in a way that mirrors the sense of alienation the protagonist feels. There are some sumptuous descriptions of food thrown in with a bit of background on the tensions with North Korea. Overall, this is a beautifully written novella with its dreamy quality and a wonderful sense of place. I read it on Kindle.

School for Love – Olivia Manning

Olivia Manning’s superb books – The Balkan Trilogy and The Levant Trilogy – were the highlights of my reading in 2019. Set in locations as varied as Bucharest, Athens, Cairo, Jerusalem, Manning has brilliantly captured the feel of these cities on the brink of war and the feeling of uncertainty that grips its inhabitants.

School for Love is set in Jerusalem during the last few years of World War Two. It is a poignant, coming of age story of young and orphaned Felix Latimer (possibly sixteen years old) who arrives all alone in Jerusalem after his mother dies in Baghdad. A relation of his father, Miss Bohun offers to lodge him in the guesthouse that she runs. Miss Bohun is miserly in her dealings with everyone and this only accentuates Felix’s sense of loneliness. And then one day, Mrs Ellis, a young widow, comes to stay in the guesthouse and stirs things up.

Manning has wonderfully brought to life the café culture in Jerusalem with Arabs and Jews gathering to discuss politics and art. But she has also captured with keen insight the gamut of emotions that Felix goes through – from despair and loneliness fuelled by his mother’s death to his infatuation with Mrs Ellis and its consequences. This book is another gem from Manning’s oeuvre.

Normal People – Sally Rooney

Sally Rooney’s Normal People is as wonderful as Conversations with Friends, which made my ‘Best of’ list last year.

The story begins in high school when Connell and Marianne (both in their teens) fall in love. In school, Connell is the popular, nice guy, while Marianne largely keeps to herself and is not much liked. The tables, however, turn when they move to Trinity College in Dublin where Marianne finds her kind of crowd, while Connell struggles to fit in. The book then goes on to chart the on and off relationship between these two over the years.

The story is pretty simple. But what Rooney captures so well is the complexities and uncertainties of young adult love as they struggle against class differences and their own personal demons. The writing is sensitive, fresh and honest and the dialogue between the two feels very real. I loved this book.

Don’t Look Now and Other Stories – Daphne du Maurier

Daphne du Maurier has written some excellent novels – Rebecca, Jamaica Inn, My Cousin Rachel to name a few – but she was also quite adept at penning short stories.

My edition contains nine tales pulled from various collections and here is a glimpse into a couple of them…The title story Don’t Look Now is set among the canals in Venice where a couple who have recently lost their child come across a pair of old ladies who have clairvoyant abilities. In The Blue Lenses, a woman undergoes an operation to improve her vision but when the new lenses are inserted into her eyes what she begins to see disturbs her greatly.

All of these nine tales are unsettling and macabre and display to great effect du Maurier’s excellent storytelling skills.

Isolde – Irina Odoevtseva (tr. from the Russian by Bryan Karetnyk)

Left to her own devices in Biarritz, fourteen-year-old Russian Liza meets an older English boy, Cromwell, on a beach. He thinks he has found a magical, romantic beauty and insists upon calling her Isolde. Meanwhile, she is impressed with his Buick and ability to pay for dinner and champagne.

Disaffected and restless, Liza, her brother Nikolai and her boyfriend Andrei enjoy Cromwell’s company in restaurants and jazz bars later in Paris – until Cromwell’s mother stops giving him money. When Liza and Nikolai’s own mother abandons them to follow a lover to Nice, the group falls deeper into its haze of alcohol and murky dealings.

Isolde is a quite a dark tale of young Russian exiles feeling alienated and out of place in a foreign city. Liza yearns not only for her mother (who has no time for her) but also for her motherland Russia (which also seems out of her reach). It all moves towards a conclusion that seems inevitable and yet tragic.

The House of the Spirits – Isabel Allende (tr. from the Spanish by Magda Bogin)

Set in an unnamed Latin American country (possibly Chile), The House of the Spirits spans three generations beginning with the taciturn and volatile landowner Esteban Trueba who marries the clairvoyant Clara after the latter’s beautiful sister Rosa dies mysteriously.  

Besides being a family saga revealing both tragedies and triumphs, the novel is also peppered with politics. The younger generation increasingly embraces Socialism and fights for the rights of workers clashing with the landowners and conservatives represented by Trueba. While for the most part, the book was engrossing, the ‘magical realism’ elements at times felt a bit over the top. Also, I felt the book could have been a lot shorter. The House of the Spirits is worth reading but I wasn’t blown away by it.

Three Poems – Hannah Sullivan

I loved the first poem in this collection called ‘You Very Young in New York’ which is a wry look at the possibility of romance, disappointment and unattainability of innocence. Sullivan’s descriptions of the New York cocktails bars are quite sensual suffused with a lot of atmospheric imagery. Lights going off one by one are compared to ‘a diminished Mondrian’, while bartenders are figuring out the winter cocktail lists ‘telling each other that Cygnar, grapefruit bitters, and a small-batch Mezcal will be trending in the new year…

Here’s how the poem begins…

Rosy used to say that New York was a fairground.

‘You will know when it’s time, when the fair is over.’

But nothing seems to happen. You stand around

On the same street corners, smoking, thin-elbowed,

Looking down avenues in a lime-green dress

With one arm raised, waiting to get older.

And that concludes my reading in May – 10 books in total. My favourites were the Haushofer, Manning, Spark, Rooney and Bae Suah, while Winter in Sokcho and the du Maurier short stories were also special. Hope to discover some more great books in June.