Venice, An Interior – Javier Marías (tr. Margaret Jull Costa)

The magnificent Grand Canal. The majestic palaces lining the waterfront, glinting in the sun. The iconic St. Mark’s Square. The picturesque gondolas gently swaying on the swell of the canal waters. The ethereal, mystical natural light that emanates from within, with its power to hypnotize. These hallmarks define the very essence of Venice, ‘the’ city I had been to exactly a decade ago, and which I hope to revisit someday.

Venice is a picture postcard city, a magnet for tourists all over the world who descend on it in hordes every year. It’s a place that has enthralled and transfixed many a traveller. It certainly occupied a special place in the heart of the Spanish author Javier Marías who between December 1984 and October 1989 flew to Venice fourteen times.

At barely 55 pages, Venice, An Interior is the author’s own fascinating perspective on what makes this city so unique. He begins with an interesting piece on the people of Venice…

Let us begin with what you don’t see, perhaps the only thing that isn’t on show, whose existence seems improbable and, to the visitor, almost impossible. People who live in Venice!

Mirroring the trend in major cities around the world, a lot of the city’s inhabitants have migrated to the suburbs – in this case to the working class district of Mestre, a few miles away from the main city. There are a few who are rooted in the city though. But they are not easy to spot in the typical tourist sites because they hardly go out much. Indeed, Marías notes…

Their indifference and lack of curiosity about anything other than themselves and their ancestors has no equivalent in even the most inward-turning of villages in the northern hemisphere.

Venetians are aware that their space is shrinking fast, and while travellers will not spot them on café terraces enjoying a drink like the rest of them, they might be seen at well-known spots such as Café Florian at ungodly hours where they can enjoy moments of quiet because the tourists are fast asleep. They also tend to congregate in places that seem unalluring to the average traveller.

Another enticing idea that Marías puts forth is how Venice is an unchanging city, or as he likes to call it – seeing it from the point of view of eternity. The essence of Venice has hardly changed, not just in two hundred and fifty years but in almost five hundred. He claims that Venice is the only city in the world whose past you do not have to glimpse or intuit or guess at because it’s there before you. In other words, its past appearance is also its present appearance. In turns this means that its future is also right there on display. Marias’ impressions are anchored on his sojourn in the city in the 1980s, and based on my recollections of Venice in 2011 (more than twenty years later), much of what he has written struck a chord.

Thus, Venice’s past can’t really be set against an identical, known future…but instead against its threat of disappearance. These threats take the shape of the aqua alta in the winter that floods the city and increases the chances of Venice sinking into the sea. Or the proliferation of algae at the bottom of the lagoon, which attracts dense clouds of mosquitoes.

Venice also provokes two simultaneous and seemingly contradictory feelings. On the one hand, it is a very harmonious city. Its persona – the canals, the luminous open space, the misty corners with or without the water – are inherently unique to Venice and cannot be glimpsed anywhere else in the world. And yet, paradoxically, few cities seem more spread out and more fragmented giving the impression of utter isolation.

Marías points out to Venice’s “endless imaginary fragmentation.” For instance, Venice has six districts…each emanates similar vibes characteristic of the entire city, but at the same time each of them has its own distinctive flavor that makes it quite different from the others. So much so that Venetians living in one area of any district may have no idea of what’s happening in another area in that very district let alone elsewhere. In other words, a fragment or a slice of a larger Venice can be seen in most corners of the city, and yet those corners are also unique in their own way.

To cite another example, travellers might wander along the Grand Canal, only to make a detour towards an inner part of the city. They might come across a church and feel themselves transported to another world, to another place in their mind, when in reality they are only a couple of steps away from a very well-known landmark.

This idea of an imaginary space is beautifully conveyed by Marías …

To say that Venice is an interior is a possible summation of everything I have said so far. It means that that it is self-sufficient, that it has no need of anything outside itself…the narrow becomes wide, the near becomes far, the limited becomes infinite, the identical becomes distinct, the timeless becomes transient.

Venice is also a city of contradictions. The buildings on the canal denote beauty and glamour, but look further down, and the canal depths appear murky…the rot and decay of the lower parts of the buildings as the water laps against them, is amply visible.

But there is no doubt that Venice is a strange and enchanting place – its labyrinth of blind alleys (the sense of getting lost in them is immensely pleasurable), its pearly green canals and its imaginary spaces are a source of wonder and awe for any traveller. Given that international travel is well-nigh impossible right now, it felt wonderful to get lost in this gorgeous account of an equally gorgeous city. This slim volume definitely turned out to be a lovely palate cleanser in between some intense reads.

Sudden Traveller – Sarah Hall

Sarah Hall writes exquisitely. Of this I was convinced when I first feasted on her novel Haweswater, a passionate love story set in the Lake District, which also examines the impact of dam building and consequent displacement of the people in the valley. Interestingly enough, the only other novel I read since then is her last one, The Wolf Border – a novel which I thought was good but not great, although I do recall some bits of it simply because the central premise was so original.

When it comes to the short stories though, Sarah Halls’ writing takes on a whole new level. She has now released a total of three collections – The Beautiful Indifference, Madame Zero, and now Sudden Traveller. All are miniature works of art.

Faber & Faber Hardback Edition
The front cover image is from ‘Mother and Daughter’, 1913 by Egon Schiele

Sudden Traveller is a slim book at 124 pages and comprises seven stories.

The first story ‘M’ has shades of ‘Mrs Fox’, of her earlier collection Madame Zero. In ‘M’, the protagonist is a woman and a lawyer who decides to do pro bono work for a shelter. This is a shelter for women – beaten down, abused, and out of luck. Her efforts are in vain though, as the shelter is eventually demolished.

But while this avenue shuts down, another one opens up, as the central character undergoes a physical transformation.  

The last decision of life, and the monetary drop, a first rush, like the waterfall’s crest, the brink of climax. For that second, such kinetic beauty, trust in nothingness. Then – a crack behind her, huge and dull and viscose, as the wings extend, unfurl and are filled, begin her flight. Suddenly, the city is far below, turning slowly in relied, roadways, estates and parks, contoured and furrowed and rapidly passing, a new landscape, a map of the hunt.

She becomes a mythical creature at night who can fly. And she sets about providing relief to the women who have been wronged.

Such a raucous call. There are so many – she could not have known before. And she cannot find them all. She seeks first the ones who transmit loudest, smell strongest, those who cannot hide and for whom it will be worst. Girls. The girl given animal tranquillisers, shared by seven of them, a lottery of seed inside.

But it doesn’t stop there. Earlier, only concerning herself with rescuing the women, she now branches out into punishing the men responsible for their sorry plight. In other words, she becomes an avenger of sorts. This is vintage Hall with all her trademark themes of feminism, and transformation.

After the visceral quality of the first story, the second one ‘The Woman the Book Read’ is mellower but no less beautifully penned. It begins hauntingly enough…

Ara. The name was unusual; he wouldn’t have recognized her otherwise. If she’d walked past him in the street, even if she’d been sitting opposite him in the café and he’d had time to study her, he probably wouldn’t have guessed.

Our male protagonist is in a beach town in the Middle East. One day, while in the midst of discussing business with a colleague, he hears the name Ara being called out. The invocation of this name brings back a flood of memories and transports him into his past.

We learn that Ara was the daughter of the woman he was involved with then. At the time, Ara was a child and the two develop a bond, which over the years fades away. In the present, Ara is now a grown woman who may or may not remember the man her mother was in a relationship with all those years ago.

Relationships of adults with children is a dominant theme in the third story too called ‘The Grotesques’. Here the central focus is a mother-daughter relationship. It’s 30-year old Dilly’s birthday and her overbearing mother, who is hosting a family get-together for Dilly, sends her out to run a few errands.

Dilly, meanwhile, is having a miserable day. She comes across a cruel prank played on a homeless man, is caught in the rain – wet and wretched by the time she reaches home, and is pining for a hot scone at her own party.

In ‘The Grotesques’, Hall has brilliantly conveyed the sense of claustrophobia in close family settings. Dilly’s mother is outspoken, at the centre of things, and her dominating personality confines Dilly to the sidelines.

Mummy could change a story or revise history with astonishing audacity, and seemed to instantly believe the new version.

Dilly is awkward and introverted as compared to her more accomplished siblings, and this puts her at odds with her mother – the two are as different as chalk and cheese.

Vengeance again is the central theme of the story ‘Who Pays?’, a story set in a Turkish forest with a very fairytale feel to it.

Who sees? Who pays? Always the women.

Sex and eroticism is an element that is vital to Hall’s writing. In ‘Orton’, an elderly woman with a heart disease, and fitted with technology, decides to visit a place in the moors called Orton. It is the scene of a previous sexual encounter with a man in her youth, before she married. Although purely a physical contact, it is a memory that is still vivid in her mind, enough for the woman to want to revisit the place.

Hall’s descriptions of the moors are gorgeous….

The moor hadn’t changed. The grass was restless, bleached and occasionally bright auburn when the sun lit it. Long walls ran upwards towards the fells, and the cleaved limestone pavements sat pale and dull on the slopes. Wind-leant trees, peat gullies, flocks of heather and the occasional darting thing. Under the clouds, great dark shadows moved across the hills.  

The title story ‘Sudden Traveller’, which to me is the highlight of the collection, is a beautiful meditation on death, loss and grief. It is also a piece in which she has expertly juxtaposed birth (of the protagonist’s child) with death (of the protagonist’s mother).

One can’t help but feel if there is a touch of the personal here. Hall gave birth to her child around the same time that her mother died.

Not surprisingly, the opening is a cracker…

You breastfeed the baby in the car, while your father and brother work in the cemetery. They are clearing the drains of leaves and silt, so your mother can be buried.

We learn of the mother’s illness, the endless hospital visits and waiting in her final days and the final act of burial. The grief and the coping involved. Against this, we are given a glimpse of the early days of motherhood: a happy one, but challenging nevertheless…

You are so tired there are moments you are not sure if you are awake any more. It feels like those early newborn days, the fugue state of new motherhood, when the baby was in a separate plastic cot at your bedside.

It’s not all gloom though. Rays of hope shine through, as does the prospect of picking up your life and starting again.

Nothing is unchanging. Rain that seems unstoppable, that seems impossible to see through, that keeps coming down, obscuring the world, washing away time, will end. Like everything else, it is only passing spirit.

And then you know how it will be. Breaking cloud, sky with discernible colour, fantastic-seeming sunlight. The rain will lift. The river will recede.

Overall, Sudden Traveller is a fascinating collection of stories that explores the themes of feminism, of what it is to be a woman, metamorphosis, and motherhood.

The collection is aptly titled with multiple meanings that convey not only physical travel but also journeys of the mind. It could either be harking back to the past or staring into an unknowable future. A lot of the characters in these stories witness a big change or are thrust into situations suddenly and are compelled to survive and make best of the situation. 

This rain is not helping: savage, unrelenting, incanting, strange even for here, making it hard to see anything clearly or think clearly. What you sense is mutability, the selves within the self. The terror of being taken, ahead, into sheer darkness. What is coming? Not just this lesson of a dying mother. But travel — You can do no more than intuit. You suspect your dreams are communicating far more destruction than you have interpreted, and in this you are correct. The future is a window that cannot be opened until it is opened.

Sarah Hall’s voice is unique and utterly captivating. There is a fierce, sensual quality to her writing that is entirely her own. She excels at lush descriptions and creating arresting images. It also explains why her short stories are so much better than the longer novels – her razor sharp sentences and spare, lyrical, staccato like prose comes across more vividly in the shorter form.

In one of her interviews with Guardian, a few years ago, here’s what Hall had to say on writing short stories…

“You’re required to fit much more in. It’s the world-on-the-head-of-a-pin thing. It was excellent discipline for me, the baggy, sloppy novelist, to think about form and plot.”

Here’s a quote in another equally interesting interview with Guardian (after the publication of the rather wonderful collection Madame Zero)…

“I do like short stories to be a powerful distilling. It is a place for dark psychology and a potent literary dosage. When I start out it usually stems from a thought, or something I heard in the news that gives me a shape. I like reading stories that give you a huge wallop, one you don’t see on the surface.”

In a nutshell, Sarah Hall’s short stories are rich, flavourful, and meant to be savoured slowly.

The Levant Trilogy – Olivia Manning

Early this year, I raved about The Balkan Trilogy by Olivia Manning. That book was fabulous and what stood out was Manning’s ability to paint a picture of a city where invasion is imminent, and yet its citizens are in a state of denial. The sense of uncertainty, that grips ordinary people during times of war as they sit around in cafes discussing and analyzing the situation, was spot on. I reviewed the first two books in the trilogy – The Great Fortune and The Spoilt City – but somehow never got to writing about the third, Friends and Heroes.

It was time to move on to the next installment, The Levant Trilogy. And I found it to be equally compelling.

Levant Trilogy

The first two books in The Balkan Trilogy were set in Bucharest, Romania, while the city in focus in the third book was Athens, Greece.

In The Levant Trilogy, the action has now moved to Cairo in Egypt with the bulk of the trilogy based in the city.

In The Levant Trilogy were are introduced to a new character Simon Boulderstone, a twenty-year old recruit who has received orders to fight in the Desert War. This is how the first book in the trilogy opens…

Simon Boulderstone, aged twenty, came to Egypt with the draft. For nearly two months, as the convoy slid down one side of Africa and up the other, he had been crowded about by other men. When he reached Cairo, he was alone.

After he is assigned to Major Perry’s unit in the desert, he has a couple of days of leave on his hands before the action begins.

He decides to visit Cairo. But more importantly, he wants to meet Edwina Little who is betrothed to his brother Hugo and who according to him is ‘the most gorgeous popsie in Cairo.’ Simon is presented with the task of buying a bottle of perfume on Hugo’s behalf and gifting it to Edwina.

Meanwhile, Simon finds himself dragged with a bunch of people who are being taken on a tour of Egypt by the brazen tour guide Clifford.

One of the people in the tour group is none other than Harriet Pringle, the central protagonist in The Balkan Trilogy.

At this point, we are only 30 pages into the novel, and the most distressing and heartbreaking scene in the book is only a few pages away.

One of the things that Manning brilliantly does is to convey the uncertainty inflicted upon the British expatriates in a foreign land. The ordinary British in Cairo have no clue what is really happening out there in the desert, and reliable information is hard to come by. Some can handle it, some cannot.

Clifford, the tour guide, is certainly impatient for news on the war front. So is Professor Pinkrose and Major Cookson, recurring characters from The Balkan Trilogy. Manning does a very good job of giving a brief refresher on the background of her secondary characters lest they have slipped from your mind.

Anyway, the group hits upon the plan of visiting Sir Desmond Hooper out in the Fayoum. According to Clifford, Sir Hooper is always wining and dining the army big shots, so he is bound to have some information to give them.

Some people in the group are aghast at the idea of strangers barging into Sir Desmond Hooper’s home. But the desperation for news takes over and the party unwillingly proceeds towards the Hooper mansion.

In the midst of their conversation with Sir Desmond Hooper, Lady Hooper makes a desperate entry.

They heard the heavy front door crash open and from the hall came the sound of a stumbling entry that conveyed a sense of catastrophe. A woman entered the room shouting, ‘Desmond. Desmond,’ and seeing the company, stopped and shook her head.

The men got to their feet. Bowen said, ‘Lady Hooper, is anything the matter?’ She shook her head again, standing in the middle of the room, her distracted appearance made more wild by her disarranged black hair and the town, paint-covered overall that protected her dress. Lady Hooper was younger than her husband. She was some age between thirty and forty, a delicately built woman with a delicate, regular face. She looked at each of the strangers in turn and when she came to Simon, she smiled and said, ‘I think he’ll be all right.’

Two safragis carried in the inert body of a boy.

I won’t reveal more but this particular section in the novel is quite distressing and incredibly sad.

Nothing more is heard of Lady Angela Hooper since that scene but she makes an entry again later in the book and goes on to become the most interesting character in the trilogy.

So far I have touched upon the basic outline of the plot that takes place in the first fifty pages, but since I don’t want to get into spoilers, I will write more about the development of characters and what makes The Levant Trilogy such an absorbing read.

Angela Hooper

Let’s begin with Angela Hooper. When we first meet her at the Hooper residence, she comes across as a tentative, distracted woman. That is not the case when we meet her again later.

The incident at the Hooper mansion having left a profound impact on her, Angela Hooper has decided to cast away her old life and begin afresh. When we meet her again, she has managed to secure a room in the Embassy quarters where Dobson is in charge (another figure from The Balkan Trilogy). She strikes up a friendship with Harriet Pringle, who has also managed to acquire lodgings there after initial hurdles.

Angela Hooper is immensely wealthy and is irreverent with the way she spends her money. She does not like to be bothered about the limitations of not having the means. This is in sharp contrast to the Pringles, who are struggling to eke out a living and are financially constrained.

Because of the ease with which she doles out cash, Angela Hooper becomes a regular fixture at the club called the Union along with Harriet, who drags along. Angela’s penchant for ordering whiskies attracts the company of Bill Castlebar…

‘Who’s this?’ she (Angela) asked Harriet.

‘Bill Castlebar; one of my husband’s time-wasting cronies. Describes himself as a poet.’

Soon, Castlebar and Angela Hooper are in a relationship, which has a lasting impact on the her. While to the outside world, there are no redeeming qualities in Castlebar, to Angela he becomes an important partner. It is a relationship of equals with both having mutual respect and love for one another. It means that this relationship pretty much defines Angela’s actions in the rest of the trilogy with equal moments of joy and distress.

The Pringles – Guy and Harriet

The other most important feature of this novel is Harriet’s development and her increasing sense of independence.

For the whole of The Balkan Trilogy, Harriet and Guy were always together even if it meant Harriet had to unwillingly put up with the people in Guy’s ever increasing social circle. The striking feature in this trilogy is that for larger chunks of the novel, Harriet is mostly alone.

Whether it is spending evenings at the Union with Angela and the other expatriates, or going on sightseeing tours, Guy is absent most of the time. It comes to a point where Harriet increasingly begins to toy with the idea of living a separate life from Guy.

He had said the climate was killing her but now, seeing the relationship from a distance, she felt the killing element was not the heat of Cairo but Guy himself.

What is redeeming for Harriet is her friendship with Angela Hooper. Circumstances and subsequent events propel Harriet and Angela to become close friends – while Angela provides financial assistance to Harriet, Harriet becomes instrumental in giving emotional support to Angela.

More importantly, it means Harriet has a first true friend of her own, one who is not part of Guy’s friend circle. What is also satisfying is the manner in which Harriet stands up to Guy and is steadfast in maintaining her friendship with Angela, even if Guy does not have a good opinion of the latter.

Guy Pringle, in the meanwhile, continues to be as irritating as he was in The Balkan Trilogy. Perpetually and stubbornly immersed in his work and forever befriending people at the drop of her hat, he continues to have no regard towards Harriet’s needs and feelings. Even when there is a major crisis point in the final book of the trilogy, the reader has this sense that Guy will never change.

The Desert War up Close

There is a new element present in The Levant Trilogy, which was never really a prominent feature in the Balkan – the description of the actual battle scenes.

In The Balkan Trilogy, the realities of war and Germany’s invasion was always palpable, but the action was mostly centred around the daily lives of the people in the city.

In that sense, The Levant Trilogy is a bit different because we see the battle scenes up front through the eyes of the recruit Simon Boulderstone.

To give credit to Manning, the portrayal of the actual war – the uncertainty, the stretches of terror alternating with periods of boredom and tedium is very well done. Manning manages to make the Simon Boulderstone and the Desert War sections pretty fascinating. And yet, one can’t help feeling that the more interesting parts of the novel revolve around Angela Hooper and Harriet Pringle.

A Riveting Travelogue

In the third book – The Sum of Things – Harriet goes on a road journey in the Levant with two women, Mort and Phil, who are a lesbian couple and members of the para-military service. Their job involves making regular trips to Iraq with ammunition and other supplies.

Manning’s descriptions of this road trip are striking and evocative…

Sitting together in the cabin of the lorry, they (Mort and Phil) took it in turns to drive or sleep so they could keep going all day and all night.

Harriet, in the back among the cases of ammunition, hardly slept at all. The road over the desert was little more than a track and full of potholes. Each time she drifted into sleep, she was jolted awake as the lorry bumped or skidded or swayed into the sandy verge. In the end she sat up and stared into darkness, seeing waterfalls stumbling black through the black air, huge birds sweeping to and fro across the night, enormous animals that paused to stare back at her before lumbering away put of sight. When the dawn came, she saw nine of these things, only the empty road stretching from her, away into the desert hills.

Soon after daybreak, they stopped at a frontier barrier, then the lorry moved on to tarmac and Harriet, exhausted by the uneasy night, fell into a heavy slumber.

Meanwhile, Harriet manages to make a stop in Damascus in Syria for a few days all alone with not much funds and while she has enough wits about her to carry on, the sense of loneliness is intense. This particular book felt like a wonderful piece of travel writing – a daring solo trip by a woman in an unknown region filled with adventures but also a longing for company.

A Wonderful Sense of Place

Olivia Manning brings Egypt and the Levant brilliantly to life. Whether it is in describing Cairo during war or the desolation of the seaside city of Alexandria, the atmosphere created is superb. We also get a feel for Damascus and Jerusalem, as Manning has a command over conjuring a sense of place helped immensely by her having spent time in these cities during the war.

Cairo had become the clearing house of Eastern Europe. Kings and princes, heads of state, their followers and hangers-on, free governments with all their officials, everyone who saw himself committed to the allied cause, had come to live here off the charity of the British government. Hotels, restaurants and cafés were loud with the squabbles, rivalries, scandals, exhibitions of importance and hurt feelings that occupied the refugees while they waited for the war to end and the old order to return.

On a Final Note…

Both The Balkan Trilogy and The Levant Trilogy have been the highlights of my reading this year. In the NYRB Classics editions (which I have), the Balkan is a hefty 900 odd pages and the Levant is around 500. This may seem daunting but don’t let the size put you off. Once you get going, both are extremely absorbing and immersive reads and the pages furiously fly by. I cannot recommend both the trilogies highly enough!

Fish Soup – Margarita Garcia Robayo (tr. Charlotte Coombe)

Charco Press books have been the highlights of my reading so far this year. I had already loved and written about The German Room by Carla Maliandi.

And now it is Fish Soup by the Colombian author Margarita Garcia Robayo, another equally wonderful offering, from the same publisher.

Fish Soup

Fish Soup comprises two novellas ‘Waiting for a Hurricane’, and ‘Sexual Education’ as well a collection of seven tales titled ‘Worse Things’.

The opening lines of ‘Waiting for a Hurricane’ hit you right in the gut.

Living by the sea is both good and bad for exactly the same reason: the world ends at the horizon. That is, the world never ends. And you always expect too much. At first, you hope everything you’re waiting for will arrive one day on a boat; then you realize nothing’s going to arrive and you’ll have to go looking for it instead. I hated my city because it was both really beautiful and really ugly, and I was somewhere in the middle. The middle was the worst place to be: hardly anyone made it out of the middle.

Our narrator is a woman, tired and self-aware, obsessed with escaping both her life and her country (Colombia).

She is emotionally detached from her family with not much respect for them. Her dad “was a pretty useless man. He spent his days trying to resolve trivial matters that he thought were of the utmost importance in order for the world to keep on turning.” Her mother “every day was involved in some family bust up.”

Stories of travel offer our narrator glimpses of hope, of running away and not coming back. There’s Gustavo, the local fisherman living in a shack by the sea, who enthralls her with his stories of travel. She keeps coming back to him even though “he stroked her down there with two fingers” when she was a young girl.

Even when she does fall in love with a man called Tony, there’s that cynical feeling that it’s not going to last.

Tony would cling to my back like a limpet, his arm around my waist, and whisper in my ear: one day we’ll get out of here. Me: we’ll always be here, waiting for a hurricane to come.

Escaping, leaving, getting out of the rut are feelings that permeate the consciousness of our narrator with the result that they form the focal point around which her relationships and even her profession is based.

She manages to find a job as an air hostess with an airline, even though Tony doesn’t like it. The route she is assigned to is Miami and even if it involves frequent visits to the same city, for her it is still a start.

Tony had a lot of ideas about air hostesses, but I had just one: air hostesses could leave.

An affair with the captain of the plane, not surprisingly, ends up nowhere like all her relationships. And there are moments of regret, of whether chances have passed her by and she failed to grab them or latch onto.

‘Waiting for a Hurricane’ is a beautiful novella. Despite the all-pervading cynicism, wariness and the tiredness, there is something lyrical and poetic about Robayo’s writing that makes it intense and absorbing.  It is a novella about the frailty of relationships, of missed chances and regret, of why travel may not always be the answer to everything.

The second novella that also packs quite a punch is ‘Sexual Education’. As the title suggests, this is a topic that is explored through the eyes of adolescents in a school which strictly preaches the doctrine of abstinence. However, what is taught at school is hardly what goes on outside its confines.

Here’s how it opens…

“In girls, just like in other fauna, moisture attracts all sorts of nasties.”

The characters that people this novella are part of the narrator’s inner circle of friends. There’s Dalia ‘a bad apple’ who doesn’t care about going to university, preferring to travel instead.

Others – me included – thought that backpacks and dreads and Latin American travels were an invention of poor people who liked to think they were bohemians. Dalia was not poor, but she smoked weed and that was enough to make her feel bohemian.

Then there’s Karina, a real devotee of Mary…

She had convinced everyone that the Virgin talked to her in her sleep and gave her instructions about how to behave at moments of moral conflict.

‘Sexual Education’ is essentially a novella that explores the existence of opposing forces side by side – sex and confronting desires as against celibacy and self-denial.

Between these two novellas, ‘Worse Things’ (a collection of seven short stories) is sandwiched. These stories examine frayed relationships, death and illness.

In ‘Like a Pariah’, Ines who is dying of cancer, refuses to have people fussing around her and insists to her son “I’m perfectly alright.”

In ‘Worse Things’, Titi, who suffers from a debilitating condition causing obesity, prefers staying in his room, engrossed in games.

In ‘Better than Me’, Orestes is trying to connect with his distant daughter Becky, sometime after his other daughter Rosa has committed suicide.

In ‘Fish Soup’, one of the stories, from which the overall title of the book has been taken, an old man is beset by the smell of overpowering fish soup. This is a strange tale in which the man’s dreams and reality merge making it disorienting to distinguish one from the other.

Overall, Fish Soup is a very strong collection, stimulating and refreshing despite the tiredness of the characters. Most are struggling to keep head above water and fight even if they perceive their circumstances to be bleak and meaningless.

The blurb at the back of my edition states:

Throughout the collection, Garcia Robayo’s signature style blends cynicism and beauty with a rich vein of dark humour. The prose is at once blunt and poetic as she delves into the lives of her characters, who simultaneously evoke sympathy and revulsion, challenging the reader’s loyalties throughout the remarkable universe that is Fish Soup.

Highly recommended!

 

Villa Amalia – Pascal Quignard (tr. Chris Turner)

I have had a great run so far with the novels published by Kolkata based Seagull Books. In 2016, Florence Noiville’s Attachment made it to my Best Books of 2016 list. And a couple of months back I loved and wrote about Tomas Espedal’s Bergeners.

Looking for something more from their catalogue, I was intrigued by Pascal Quignard’s Villa Amalia. And what more, the book cover was stunning.

Villa Amalia
Seagull Books

When the book opens, the protagonist Ann Hidden (a musician), is hiding in the bushes to spy on her partner Thomas who she suspects is cheating on her.

‘I wanted to cry. I was following him. So unhappy I wanted to die.’

But she is caught doing so by a friend from her past – Georges Roehl. He berates her for spying and soon he becomes Ann’s confidant in the drastic plan she is going to put into action.

Ann Hidden decides to ditch her partner (whose affair is confirmed), give up her old life in the Paris suburbs and altogether disappear. But she is intent on keeping Thomas in the dark of what she is about to do. Thomas, meanwhile, desperately tries to hold on to Ann, but she is indifferent and quite set on radically altering her life.

When Thomas is in London for a week for a business meeting, Ann successfully sells off their home and furniture, withdraws money from the bank, and decides to spend some time travelling.

Her friend George is privy to her new plans, or is he? Ann tells him that she will be heading to Morocco. Instead, she travels to Switzerland, and Italy, and finally enamoured by the volcanic island of Ischia off the Italian coast, halts there.

Days are spent in a hotel (with a sea view), swimming, walking and reveling in solitude. But hotel life soon begins to grate on her.

It is then that she comes across an abandoned villa atop a cliff that is surrounded by the sea on all sides. It’s a villa she immediately falls in love with. After a meeting with its aged owner, she rents the place and settles in her new home.

She was passionately, obsessively in love with Zia Amalia’s house, the terrace, the bay, the sea. She wanted to disappear into what she loved. In every love there is something that fascinates. Something much more ancient than can be indicated by the words we learnt long after we were born. But it wasn’t a man now she loved this way. It was a house that called out to her to be with it. It was a mountain wall she was trying to cling to. It was a recesses of grasses, light, lava and inner fire that she wanted to live in.

It’s a new phase in her life and promises all the solitude that Ann craves for. There is also all the time in the world to compose music.

She re-learnt how to be without a man, not having anything to prepare, not having to wash herself, not having to dress with care, taste or attention, not out on make-up or do her hair. The pleasure of collapsing into an armchair, lighting a marvelous cigarette and closing her eyes without anyone shouting, humming in the distance, coming up to you, speaking commenting on the weather, the day or the passing hour, tormenting you.

And yet ironically, even though her past relationships with men have left a bitter taste in her mouth and she yearns to be alone, she doesn’t really shut off people.

On the contrary, once settled in Villa Amalia, Ann Hidden actually begins a new life, forging new relationships.

Will this new phase give her satisfaction, or will she remain a restless soul aching to move on?

Villa Amalia is a beautiful book (both the cover and the content), and Ann’s story – especially the sections of her life in Ischia – is immersive and engrossing. Quignard’s prose is spare and poetic, and there is an enchanting quality to his storytelling (wonderfully translated by Chris Turner).

There a couple of themes that are dominant in this novel. The first that comes to mind is how we choose to deal with loss and abandonment. Her partner’s betrayal, of course, disorients her, possibly making her feel anchorless. But we learn that she has been abandoned by her father earlier leaving her and her mother to fend for themselves (Mind you, mother-daughter do not have an easy relationship either). And even in the new relationships that she forms when in Ischia, there comes a point when she is confronted with loss.

Villa Amalia is also about transformation, about breaking the shackles of convention and choosing to live life on your own terms. We live with this perception that the older we get, the more difficult it is to change our thinking or our way of life. But that does not have to be necessarily be so. After all, Ann Hidden is middle-aged when she decides to live her life differently.

Ultimately, in Ann Hidden, Quignard has created a fascinating character. Her metamorphosis from a woman leading an ordinary existence to a life filled with adventure and new possibilities was fresh and invigorating adding another dimension to her personality.

She was a complex woman.

As Magdalena saw it, the mistress of the storms was, in some deep way, a magical being, a fairy creature.

In the eyes of Leonhardt, Ann was an extraordinarily inward artist, almost indifferent to those around her, strong, wild or at least relatively untamed, solitary.

In the eyes of Giulia, she was a great gentle body that was silent, sensual and reassuring, a bundle of bones, evasions and elusions.

In Georges’ eyes, she was a little girl who was proud, rather hostile, always on her guard, easily upset, fragile, worried, mysterious.

In my eyes, she was a genius of a musician. I very seldom heard her play. Yet I did everything I could to do so.