Fragrant Harbour by John Lanchester

Reviewed by James Wilson

‘Fragrant Harbour’ is ‘Hong Kong’ in English, and perhaps the most compelling protagonist in Lanchester’s 2002 book is the city itself, ostensibly only the setting for this sprawling historical novel, but, in fact, its primary focus. Published 5 years after the handover to China, Fragrant Harbour chronicles the complex and layered history of Hong Kong from 1935, when the actual protagonist, and lead narrator (of four), Tom Stewart, a twenty-two-year old Englishman, slakes his thirst for adventure by buying passage to the romantic Eastern port, up to the turn of the 21st century. By novel’s end, Stewart, aged 87, has retired from a long career managing two hotels, one on Hong Kong Island and the other across Victoria Harbour in Kowloon, and is living quietly on Cheung Chau island, a short ferry ride from the now-megalopolis of 7 million. In the intervening seven decades he and his adopted home have lived through much: the rise of Maoism and the outbreak of civil war in China; World War II, and the invasion and brutal occupation of Hong Kong by the Japanese; the resumption of the civil war in 1945; the influx of refugees escaping communist China in 1949; the Cold War (“good for business”- at this time, 1953, when, “The Hong Kong Bank building, a dozen or so stories high, still dominated the middle of town.”); the arrival in force of the CIA and MI6 (every second new ‘journalist’ was a spy); Vietnam and the boat people; the Cultural Revolution; the 1967 riots; the eventual emergence of unbridled capitalism and international banking; the 1997 handover; and the first years of the Special Administrative Region.

Yes, a lot goes on in this book, but Lanchester’s deftest touch has been to meld the objective history with the equally complex and layered personal stories of Stewart and the other characters, including a Chinese Catholic nun, Sister Maria, whom he meets on the voyage out in 1935, the other Brits running the colony (while they still could), and his various Chinese business associates, including more than a few members of the organized crime triads.

Of the four narrators, Stewart has the lion’s share, while living through—and providing to us—the history. Sister Maria’s contribution is a single one-and-a-half-page letter, penned in 1942 but not delivered for over forty years. Don’t be misled by its length–its content changes everything. The last 70 pages are narrated by a latterly introduced character (though he has a cameo in the opening chapters), Matthew Ho, whose relationship to the others I can’t reveal without spoiling some intricate plotting, and a clever twist. Ho’s narration is curiously banal, full of short, less than profound sentences, like, “The nightclub had bright colored lights inside.” But this is good writing disguised as bad. Lanchester wants to reveal the quality of Ho’s character by what he says and how he says it; his chapters make up an extended dramatic monologue. In a similar vein, the book’s opening is narrated by a peripheral character, Dawn Stone, a young Englishwoman, even more insipid and materialistic than Ho.In the late 20th century, Dawn takes a job in Hong Kong as a journalist, and quickly finds herself drawn into the endlessly corrupt—and corrupting—corporate Hong Kong. It’s all Gucci bags, Rolexes (some of them knock-offs), boozy yacht parties, and glittering 80th floor offices. Intriguingly, if not unhappily, after 6 short chapters, Dawn Stone disappears completely, and is not heard of again, until she pops up for her own cameo in the closing pages. It’s readily apparent that, although she had been telling her story to us at the beginning, at the end she doesn’t know that we know who she is. Yes, it does get a bit Jamesian. At one point, when Stewart is negotiating his way through the ‘layers’ of the proposed purchase of one of his hotels by a secret consortium, we get this memorable line, “He knew I knew. He knew I knew he knew I knew.” It was at that point that I started to love this book. With both Ho and Stone, Lanchester is playing with not so much an ‘unreliable narrator’ (though we have one of those, too), as a ‘bit of an idiot character’, whose self-awareness and integrity are next to nil, and certainly less than Stewart’s and Sister Maria’s. But in a book that is so obviously concerned with ‘layering’, there may also be a nod to Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead here, and his imagining the off-stage lives of two bit parts in Hamlet. Attending the funeral of a friend, Stewart reports feeling, “…that the section of her life I had seen was only a tiny fragment of her whole being.” The narrative structure of Lanchester’s book might be seen as mirroring this notion: what is a tiny fragment in the shallow and narcissistic Dawn Stone’s experience of modern-day corporate Hong Kong, initially not even noticed by the reader, becomes the compelling and ultimately tragic core of the complex tale told, in turn, by Stewart, Sister Maria and Ho. When Stone turns up again at the end, the circle is closed, the threads and layers merge into a single and remarkable truth. It is not a comfortable truth for any lover of the Eastern city, given its inevitable inheritors, be they Dawn Stone, Matthew Ho, or mainland China in 2047, when the city loses its status as a ‘special administrative region’. Fragrant Harbour is essentially an elegy for Hong Kong.

Fragrant Harbour will be available soon at the Lennoxville Library.

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The Field Guide to the American Teenager

by Shanna Bernier

I have been a teenager and I have workegoodreads captured with lots of teenagers, someday I will parent teenagers. They are weird creatures. The more time I spend with them, the more they astound and confound me. During your adolescence your brain is still growing, specifically your prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is the decision-making part of the brain, responsible for our ability to plan and think about the consequences of actions, to solve problems and control impulses. Changes in this part of the brain continue into early adulthood. A teen knows more than they have ever known before, and that is exciting, but their capacities for empathy and impulse control are still developing. I once had a colleague who described 9th graders as “almost people”: not to imply that they didn’t require the rights and respect that human beings deserve but that the ages between thirteen and twenty can be deceiving. Sometimes teens are so wise and moving and say exactly the right thing, and other times they are ridiculous and make terrible choices, not only for themselves but for others around them. The volatile emotions that hormonal fluctuations and major life-stage experiences evoke are also mind-blowing. Toddlers get a lot of credit for the expression of their massive feelings in the form of a tantrum on the floor of the shopping centre but a teenage tantrum might involve human lives trapped inside a moving vehicle. Suffice to say, teenagers are interesting. It is no wonder, then, that a whole genre of books has been devoted to this particular stage of life.

Young Adult literature, or YA— which I have explored in this column before— is centred on teens and young adults. They are the protagonists and, presumably, also the target readers (although plenty of YA lit is read by plain old adults who might be long past the Y for young stage, and that is just fine in my opinion). Novels geared towards the young are not a new phenomenon but as any frequenter of libraries and bookstores might have noticed, it is a market which has grown a lot in the past few decades.

The book I wish to discuss today fits into this genre, but it goes one step further and more literally explores the teenage condition. It does this not through the lenses of tragedy, science fiction or magical adventure but rather though the mundane struggles of a clever but awkward boy analysing the stereotypical teenage roles in a large American high school in the style of a naturalist’s field notes. The Field Guide to the North American Teenager is Ben Philippe’s debut novel. It tells the story of Norris Kaplan, a high school student transplanted from his Montreal home when his single mother gets a teaching gig in Austin, Texas. He is forced to move to an enormous American high school, where being French-speaking, Canadian and black make him stand out in threefold undesirable ways.  Norris is smart but not very good at making friends, and he engages in a sort of self-sabotaging practice of mocking every aspect of the culture of high school and adolescence, as typically portrayed in sitcoms and teen movies. Despite this, he forms relationships throughout the book. He learns a lot about people. They are not as simple and easily transformed into tropes and stereotypes as he expects. He comes to care about some of the people he meets, and has to work hard to repair damaged friendships when his snarky and tactless judgements come to light.  The book deals with a lot of the issues, both light and heavy, many teens navigate in their daily lives, including friendships, crushes, school demands, future prospects for career and education, and sexuality. Norris’ character also has to struggle with being a visible minority in a particularly white community, as well as the pressures faced by being the child of immigrants, to succeed and have a “better life” than his parents.  This book delves into all of these topics with curiosity and grace. As I read this book I felt real insight into a life very different from my own. Woven gracefully throughout this novel is a constant stream of humor and wit. This book is indeed laugh-out-loud funny, causing numerous stifled giggles as I read it in bed late at night.

Of special note to me as I read the acknowledgments, the author came to Canada from Haiti during his own childhood and now resides in New York City after being raised in Montreal.  I found it pleasing to note that the first place he lived with his family upon arrival in Quebec was Sherbrooke.

 

 

 

 

 

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Three Junes, by Julia Glass

Reviewed by Melanie Cutting

Let me say right at the outset, I wish I’d written this book. Or, at least, I wish had the literary skills to have written this book.  It has really been a while since I found myself turning the pages of such a satisfying and enjoyable novel. So, exactly who is Julia Glass, and why have I never heard of her? Ms. Glass, now 62, is an American novelist. Coming a little late to the game, Three Junes, published in 2002, was her debut novel.  That year it won the National Book Award for Fiction, and became a bestseller.  Since then, the author has produced five more works of fiction, including I See You Everywhere, winner of the Binghamton University John Gardner Fiction Book Award, and most recently, A House Among the Trees (2017). Why she is not better known is a mystery to me, because her very assured prose, especially her delineation of character, place and especially, food, is superb.

Synopsis

Three Junes is the story of the McLeod family, spanning the decade from 1989-99, with many stopovers in earlier years. Starting off in Scotland, the first of the novel’s three chapters (Collies, Upright, Boys – each set in the month of June) introduces us to paterfamilias Paul, recently widowed publisher of the Dumfies-Galloway newspaper founded by Paul’s father, and  now on a restorative touring holiday in Greece. Through the generous use of flashbacks, we learn that Paul’s wife of many years, Maureen, the usually hale and hearty breeder and trainer of border collies, has succumbed to lung cancer, and the family has assembled at their home in the country outside of Prestwick for the funeral.  We are introduced to Paul and Maureen’s three sons, Fenno and twins Dennis and David, now in their thirties, and their respective families. This first chapter, the shortest, is largely devoted to Paul’s experience in Greece, and the people he meets. One of these individuals, Fern, will play a small but vital role, and an even larger role in the third chapter of the book.

The second—and longest—chapter is devoted to eldest son Fenno’s life as an expat living and working in New York City.  Again deftly utilizing the technique of flashing back to earlier points in his life, we initially meet Fenno in 1995 when he has returned home to Scotland for his father’s funeral.  As he recalls earlier trips, the reader learns many things about Fenno, most notably that he is gay, a fact that had somehow eluded his father’s knowledge for most of his life. Fenno owns a successful Manhattan bookstore, Plume, dedicated to both literature and ornithology, with his friend and mentor, Ralph. This bleak period in America history, the height of the AIDS epidemic that was particularly devastating in major urban centres, has informed Fenno’s behavior: “Upright, I would tell myself as I savored the visual innuendos of a trimly mustached business student, as I pictured us falling together into my bed. Stay upright and you will stay alive.” A central player in this chapter (and in Fenno’s life), is his music critic friend Mal, short for Malachy. Mal is HIV positive, and periodically so ill that Fenno is often certain that he has come to the end; surprisingly, though, Mal is tougher than he looks, and still possessed of the sharpest tongue in N.Y.C.

Arranging Paul’s funeral, never the smoothest of activities, proves especially onerous for the McLeod brothers.  David, an equine veterinarian, and his wife Lilian have remained psychologically and geographically the closest to Paul.  David’s resentment of Fenno is palpable, and it all comes to a head as family secrets are let out of the closet, and jealousies on the part of both brothers threatens to ruin what is left of their relationship.  Meanwhile, brother Dennis, his overbearing French wife Véronique and their three little girls, are caught up in the heady atmosphere at the family estate, as Dennis plays chef for the extravagant meal which forms the centrepiece of the funeral.

Chapter 3, although entitled “Boys”, reintroduces Fern, the free-spirited fellow tourist and artist who so captivated Paul 10 years earlier when both were participants on that excursion to Greece.  Fern has been invited by her former lover, Tony,(also Fenno’s former lover!) to the Long Island beach house which, coincidentally, belongs to Fenno’s business partner Ralph. In due time, Fenno turns up with his dog, Rodgie, who has died and will now be buried on the grounds of the beach house.  Yet another funeral forms an important element in Fenno’s life. However, the chapter belongs to Fern. The years since her time in Greece have not been kind, although she is now pregnant and tenuously encoupled with Stavros. The bond she strikes up with Fenno brings the story full circle, and the reader is left to imagine how their pasts, linked through Paul, will impact their future.

“Word alchemist Julia Glass weaves gold into straw into gold again in this novel that proves to us that neither ancient privileges nor modern passions absolve us from the regrets losses, comforts and ineffable joys of family love…Our only longing on finishing Three Junes is that we do not have four, because Julia Glass’s steady hand at our back is an uncommon pleasure.” National Book Award Fiction Judges, 2002.

I sincerely hope that Ms. Glass was able to get past the curse of an award-winning first novel and produce equally worthy books in the ensuing years. Her beautiful prose, highlighted by her accessible and astute use of literary techniques, humour and genuine sympathy and understanding of the human condition, recommend her as an author with whom I definitely hope to spend some more time.

Julia Glass is a Distinguished Writer in Residence at Emerson College. She lives with her family in Marblehead, Massachusetts.

This book is available at the Bibliothèque Lennoxville Library.

 

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The Zone of Interest by Martin Amis

The Zone of Interest (2014) is not English novelist, Martin Amis’ first foray into the Holocaust as subject. In 1991 he published Time’s Arrow: or The Nature of the Offence, a technical tour de force in which all events happen in reverse chronological order: a simple meal begins with the regurgitation of food, which is then sculpted onto plate with knife and fork, wrapped in packaging, and eventually placed on grocery shelves, after one has been paid at ‘check-in’. It’s all very, very strange. And, with the reversal of time, comes the reversal of morality: doctors cause injuries, then acts of violence heal them. When this world of opposite cause and effect reaches the Nazi death camps, the implication becomes breath-taking: the Nazi doctors bring millions of Jews to life. The purpose of this inverted Holocaust? “To dream a race. To make a people from the weather. From thunder and from lightning. With gas, with electricity, with fire.” It was a controversial book. Only slightly less controversial is The Zone of Interest, which is both a black comedy and a love story, set in Auschwitz.

It must be said that Amis has his detractors. Though no longer regarded as the enfant terrible of contemporary fiction (he’ll be 70 later this year; grand-père terrible?), he has been criticized for being gratuitously cynical, trivialising the Holocaust, and using ‘content’ as a mere vehicle for technique; simply an excuse to ostentatiously display his extraordinary literary verve. But others have called The Zone of Interest a ‘profound, powerful and morally urgent’ novel, and ‘a masterpiece’. Amis himself considers it his best work.

One way of understanding Amis’ method in both novels may be found in a love letter that the novel’s hero and main narrator (of three), Angelus Thomsen (he’s an SS Officer at Auschwitz, but his given name may hold an unironic clue to how his character changes) writes to his beloved, Hannah (who also happens to be the Commandant’s wife – yes, it’s complicated). His love for her gives him hope, he tells her: “And now I feel I am starting again – and starting from nothing. But that is the state of mind of the artist, I’m sure: the diametrical opposite of what we call taking things for granted.” Early 20th century Russian literary critics developed the notion that the purpose of art was to ‘make things strange’ so that through art we would ‘see, as though for the first time’, rather than simply ‘recognise’. There have been thousands of books on the Holocaust, but few are as ‘strange’ as Amis’ novels. Ostensibly using the most horrific event in human history as a mere backdrop to a love story between two people on the wrong side of the moral divide certainly has the effect of startling the reader out of any sense of complacency, and arguably allows them to ‘see’ the enormity of the depravity afresh.

A second main character/narrator, the buffoonish, self-important and unutterably inhuman Commandant, Paul Doll (throughout represented comedically via Amis’ incisive satirical articulation – basically he’s a Nazi Miles Gloriosus) also ‘defamiliarises’: so dutiful is he to the great cause that while attending a local Christmas concert he becomes “immersed in the logistical challenge of gassing the audience.” Ever the word-player, Amis has the benighted Doll boast that he “likes numbers” but is “a little uncertain” by “’one’ – about whether it denotes a quantity, or is being used as a pronoun”. Henceforth in his narration, it’s “Greetings, 1 and all”, etc. The double satirical point here is that their ‘love of numbers’ helped the Nazis to be so good at mass murder, and that Doll’s discomfort with ‘one’ as a pronoun expresses his total lack of— one might say, fear of —self-reflection; for Amis, Doll may stand for the majority of the German people here, who, ultimately, are the focus of the book, e.g.the German attitudes (one can’t say ‘thinking’) that made it all possible, allowable: the ‘zone’ of interest.

The third character/narrator, who does not really fit Amis’ sardonic technique, is the Jewish ‘Sondercommando’ Szmul, one of the prisoners, whose forced tasks (do this, or be shot) include selecting which ‘evacuees’ will be put to work, and which killed immediately, and ‘processing’ the corpses (in Doll’s terminology, the “pieces”) before cremation, make him and his colleagues “the saddest men in the history of the world”. When Szmul is narrating, Amis’ satirical tone falls away to be replaced by essentially the voice of unimaginable pain and suffering. Szmul has stopped having nightmares because nightmares are “incapable of coming up with anything even remotely as terrible as what [he does] all day.”

Szmul’s chapters are much shorter than Thomsen’s or Doll’s, most of them just a page or two, partly because the sheer horror of his existence does not bear elaboration, but also because Szmul voices an inherent contradiction within any representation of the Holocaust: its nature transcends description, transcends language: “This pencil and these scraps of paper aren’t enough. I need something more than words.” Famously, film director Stanley Kubrick abandoned a long-projected film about the Holocaust because he determined that an accurate rendition was beyond the capacity of cinema.

Amis clearly disagrees, though, in an Afterword, he does admit to being defeated by the question, ‘Why?’, resorting finally to Primo Levi’s “Here there is no why.” At the same time, he takes solace from an exhortation from Levi not to understand – because understanding implies a degree of identification, and no one should ever identify with Hitler et al, whose deeds were not only beyond words, but beyond human.

The Zone of Interest is a remarkably and deliberately strange novel, an eloquent, sometimes anguished, always fiercely articulate expression of the inexpressible horror of the Holocaust, offering a poignant reassurance that, while it must never become so familiar as to go ‘unseen’, it is best not understood.

James Wilson

 

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Andrew Sean Greer’s “Less”

Book review by Melanie Cutting

less greerIn Record columnist Ross Murray’s recent annual roundup of books he has read over the preceding year, Less was given special mention as one he would definitely recommend. I agree, although my book club read this slim novel a few weeks ago, and no one actually loved it.  On the other hand, no one hated it, either. One or two clubbies thought that being a gay American writer and writing about being a gay American writer might be considered navel-gazing, and just a bit too easy…

This satirical comedy novel won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and made it to the New York Times best seller list, as well as winning the Northern California Book Award, among many other accolades.

Less is a satirical comedy novel by American author Andrew Sean Greer, first published in 2017. It follows gay writer Arthur Less as he travels the world on a literary tour, hoping to be away for his fiftieth birthday, since his much-younger, long-term lover Freddy has recently decided to marry someone closer to his own age, and very wealthy to boot.  Recurring themes, such as the difficulties and rewards of same-sex relationships, romantic love, aging, and travel are all deftly handled, and the book includes quite a few laugh-out-loud moments. Several passages reminded me of World According to Garp author John Irving’s second novel, The Water Method Man, in the author’s ability to sketch self-deprecating situations with both great humour, and even greater empathy.

The story: Arthur Less is a man of many frailties, and low self-worth. He is a minimally successful novelist who is surprised to discover that his work is far better received in places like Japan than at home in the U.S. To soothe his broken heart, he responds to several longstanding invitations to visit far-flung destinations and participate in the literary life abroad, and beyond. First up is a trip to New York City to interview a well-known author, and check in with his agent, “…who surely has word from his publisher.  Less’s latest novel has been living with his publisher for over a month, as any modern couple lives together before a marriage, but surely his publisher will pop the question any day now. There will be champagne; there will be money.”

The second stop on his trip will be Mexico City, for a symposium on the work of his mentor and former lover, Robert. Since Robert is now too old and ill to travel, Less has been asked to speak at many conferences regarding his relationship with The Great Man, but never about Less’s own work: “Not as a novelist in his own right; rather as a kind of witness. A Civil War widow, as Less thinks of it. These festivals want one last glimpse of the famous Russian River School of writers and artists, a 1970s bohemian world long receded over the horizon, and they will accept a reflected one.”

Third on the itinerary is Turin, Italy to accept an award for one of his books recently translated into Italian, all expenses paid. “He wonders who funds such European excesses, considers they are perhaps laundering ill-gotten gains, and finds, printed at the bottom of the invitation, the name of an Italian soap conglomerate.  Laundering indeed. But it gets him to Europe.”

His fourth stop will take him to Berlin to teach a five-week course “on a subject of Mr. Less’s choosing.”  The letter is in German because Less’s publisher is under the impression that he is fluent in German, which Less also believes, but is proved stunningly wrong when he actually arrives in Germany and must acquit himself in the native tongue.

Fifth, a sojourn across Morocco, on an expedition from Marrakech into the Sahara Desert and then to Fez.  Since his friend encouraged him to take part in the organized excursion, how could he say no? “The wine would be copious, the conversation scintillating, and the amenities deluxe.  How could he say no? The answer, as always: money, money, money.” But too late, Less is now in love with his image of trekking across the desert.

The sixth leg of his round-the-world itinerary would put him in India at a retreat centre on a hill overlooking the Arabian Sea. In Less’s mind, “…he could polish the final draft of his novel, the one whose acceptance his agent will surely be celebrating in New York with that champagne.”

Finally, to Japan, in place of another writer whose wife has forbidden him further travel and who needs someone to go to Kyoto in his stead and write a piece about kaiseki cuisine for an in-flight magazine. In this way, Less will be able to avoid both his approaching mid-life birthday, and the marriage of his ex, and virtually none of it at his own expense.

Needless to say, most of his carefully laid plans go seriously —and often hilariously— astray, from the loss of his newly purchased signature blue suit, to stepping on his own sewing needle and requiring surgery in India.

According to Wikipedia, Andrew Sean Greer began writing Less as a “very serious novel” but found that “the only way to write about [being gay and aging] is to make it a funny story. And I found that by making fun of myself, I could actually get closer to real emotion – closer to what I wanted in my more serious books.”

Greer is also the author of The Path of Minor Planets, The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells, The Story of a Marriage, How It Was for Me, and The Confessions of Max Tivoli. He presently lives in San Francisco.

My recommendation: Read Less, you’ll like it more than you might expect. Trust me. Have I ever lied to you?

Less is available in paperback from the Bibliothèque Lennoxville Library.

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The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes

by James Wilson

Julian Barnes has always struck me as being a ‘thinking man’s novelist’, by which I mean no disrespect to the intellects of some of his contemporaries, like, for example, Martin Amis or Ian McEwan. But many novelists have a ‘hook’, or particular quality that resonates repeatedly in their work – Amis’ style and technical wizardry, McEwan’s fascination with disturbed and disorienting experiences. Barnes’ novels are typically rather quiet and thoughtful, and if his  recent book, The Noise of Time (2016), is not a thinking man’s novel, it certainly is a novel about a thinking man – specifically, the 20th century Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich. Biographical fiction, treating artists in particular, is a genre that Barnes has experience in: in Flaubert’s Parrot (1984) and Arthur and George (2005), he extensively reimagines the lives, and thoughts, of the 19th century French novelist, and Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle; and arguably his most famous novel, A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters (1989), devotes one to the French painter Gericault.

The plot of The Noise of Time, if we can accurately say it has a plot, in actuality consists of three ‘moments’, as it were, in the life of Shostakovich: one while he is waiting for an elevator, a second while he is on an airplane, and the third, much later in his life, when he is in the back seat of his Communist Party-provided car, while staring at his chauffeur’s ear. Barnes’ technique is to stretch these moments out by filling in not what his subject was actually ‘doing’, but what he was thinking. In the edition I was reading, the wait for the apartment building elevator to get to his floor begins on page 15; the elevator actually arrives on page 53. The novel is quite literally composed of thoughts and very little else.

But the thoughts of Dmitri Shostakovich, in Barnes’ imaginative recreation, are as fascinating as any action-packed plot. Barnes’ interest in this artist’s thoughts extend not only to the musical and artistic insights of what the Soviet state called ‘the greatest composer of the 20th century’ (though for any music lovers among its readership it will certainly provide both musical insights, particularly to the symphonies, and some delicious gossip, especially about contemporaries, Stravinsky and Prokofiev, who, unlike Shostakovich, ‘sold out’ to the West), but, even more importantly, one suspects, for readers concerned with ‘theme’, to ‘the soul of man under socialism’, to borrow a phrase. Barnes’ primary interest in the novel is with Shostakovich as artist under the tyranny of Stalin and Soviet ‘Power’. In point of fact, the book opens with Shostakovich waiting for an elevator in the middle of the night, as he does every night, because he fully expects them to come and take him away, for the interrogation, ending with the bullet to the back of the head. He prefers to wait in the hallway outside his apartment because he does not want his wife and children to be awakened, and to watch him being taken away. This is fact, not fiction.

What lends a freshness to yet another novel of mid-twentieth century Stalinist terror is that Shostakovich, unlike Stravinsky or Prokofiev, both of whom left Russia for the west, or Solzhenitsyn or Sakharov, both of whom Shostakovich publicly denounced, is generally perceived as a willing spokesman for Stalin and the Soviet Union. By the time of his death in 1975 he had become a member of the Party, and served on the ‘Supreme Soviet’, the most authoritative legislative body of the USSR. We are reminded on a number of occasions by the ‘remembering’ Shostakovich, that his “Second Symphony had contained four blasts from a factory siren in F sharp.” Another of his symphonies was composed to the memory of Lenin. Barnes seems to want to try to understand the – apparently contradictory – forces which drove him to be both a great composer and artist, and at the same time a willing participant in state terror, torture and the systemic suppression of freedom and truth. It’s an interesting sort of pickle.

It also, in my view, is a novel which is as much ‘about’ today’s world, as the Soviet era. In Arthur and George, Barnes had written a novel set in the Edwardian era and ostensibly about a legal case against George Edaiji, a Parsi Englishman, who was wrongfully charged and convicted of a crime. Barnes raises questions about racial profiling which were arguably more relevant to 2005 England than to 1890s England. Similarly, The Noise of Time, which might reasonably be understood as meaning ‘the cacophony of history’ – and what that does to the purity and truth of music, may, I think, be read as musings by Barnes about the role of the artist in a western world that has become beset by new – and some old – perceptions of nationalism and isolationism, and contrasting views of internationalism and diversification. Barnes completed the novel in 2015, the year before the Brexit vote and the election of the current US president. As a long-standing Francophile, who divides his time roughly equally between England and the continent, one can imagine that Barnes voted Remain. Repeatedly in this novel, Barnes recreates a time of great conflict between the all-powerful state, together with mass hysteria, and individual freedom and truth. For Shostakovich, there is “Nothing but madness in the world.” He is forced to compose within the revolver-wielding and ever-threatening communist state’s requirement of the need for art to please the people, and not to become corrupted by esoteric western formalism. It is very much a struggle between art and propaganda, or between truth and ‘fake news’; very much a choice between standing for principle and going with populism. The Noise of Time is of our time as well as of Shostakovich’s.

James Wilson

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So Long Stan: Dunn’s Conundrum by Stan Lee

By Vincent Cuddihy

Stan Lee, Marvel Comics’ legendary creative genius, died last month, so I thought it would it would be appropriate to review one of his books. Although Lee is best known for co-creating many of Marvel’s best loved characters such as Spider Man and Iron man, as well as establishing Marvel as a powerhouse in the production of blockbuster films, he did write a few books along the way. Most of them are graphic novels and how-to books about cartooning. But he did author at least one very clever and amusing novel.

Dunn’s Conundrum (1985) is a mix of detective story, spy thriller and political satire. Harry Dunn is the boss of an intelligence group known as the Library. There are only twelve agents, referred to as Librarians, each of whom is a specialist in a particular field, but all of whom have access to all the information the other eleven have. Unlike the CIA’s policy of making information available to agents on a need-to-know basis, the Library functions on a need-to-know-everything basis. And that “everything” includes whatever the CIA, the NSA and all the other US intelligence agencies know. Lee presents a world where all the Librarians operate like Tim McGee in NCIS or Penelope Garcia in Criminal Minds. They spend their time mining all the data bases in the country, including police records, prison records, phone records, as well as the tapes from all operative surveillance cameras.

There has been a break-in at the Library Reference Room while it was undergoing repairs. All systems had been shut down, but one of the burglars seemed to know how to reconnect them. This leads Harry to think that the putative thieves had inside help from one of the Librarians. He needs to ferret out the culprit before more damage is done. But how can you uncover the source of the leak when all the suspects know everything you know? That is Dunn’s conundrum.    

Harry assigns Walter Coolidge to find the mole, known to his outside contacts by the code name of the Doctor. Coolidge is an archaeologist by training. His academic papers on the study of garbage as a means of learning about daily life in ancient civilizations had attracted the Library’s attention. If he can learn that much about people’s behaviour from 2000 year-old garbage, think what he can learn from this week’s trash! Coolidge’s official title is Trashman, but all the other Librarians refer to him as the Garbageman. In addition to spending his time sifting through waste bins, Coolidge is also carrying on a torrid affair with Vera Bishop, the photo analyst. It is her work on satellite pictures that leads Lee to forecast the development of Google Maps and Google Earth.

Walter’s inquiries lead him to believe that the break-in was staged by a group that call themselves the Emersons and they are looking for information about O.F.F. Walter struggles to learn what O.F.F. stands for. Judging by the comportment in their personal lives of those who are at the top of the pecking order, which Walter is privy to because of all the microcams the Library has distributed around DC, and by how excited they all get when the percent for O.F.F. goes up, Walter starts to believe it refers to Opportunities For F—ing. Later on he will learn that it represents something much more sinister.

There are some very funny passages, such as this rant by Senator Garvey’s assistant Davey Reed. “You see, ladies and gentlemen, the politics of this great republic of ours can be described with only one word. My fellow citizens, that word is vodka. American politics is straight, pure vodka…Tasteless, of course. Odorless, perhaps. Colourless, certainly. And yet, in spite of all, having the power to intoxicate.”

But there also some very alarming parts. The Doctor’s clinical description of how WWIII is going to unfold over a 30 minute period with only 25 to 28 million American deaths, mostly from cancers triggered by the increase in radiation, is truly frightening. One wonders whether Ronald Reagan had read this book when he decided to restart negotiations with the USSR that led to the treaty that eliminated short and medium range nuclear missiles along with their warheads.

In some ways, Dunn’s Conundrum, seems badly dated with no cellphones, no internet and no 9/11 with its consequences. But the following analysis still seems relevant in the dystrumpian world of current American politics. “You know what it’s like out there. John Doe has anticommunism in his gut; it’s in the water he drinks, the food he eats. He’s touched with fear and righteousness and fanaticism and hate. You’re going to tell this man that the arms race is our fault?….But you still refuse to deal with the problem that John Doe doesn’t want to know. He enjoys his hate. It makes him feel superior. All any president has to do is go out to the country and rattle John Doe’s cage every few years and he gets all the money he needs for the latest weapons systems.”

Dunn’s Conundrum is still in print. Or perhaps you can find a copy in someone else’s trash.

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