Tag Archives: Fiction

Undermajordomo Minor – Patrick DeWitt

Undermajordomo Minor - Patrick DeWitt“What do you want from your life, Lucy?”

“Not to die”

“Beyond that. Were you to live, what would you hope might come to pass?”

“Something to happen”

So, Christmas came early for Patrick DeWitt fans with the release of his third novel, Undermajordomo Minor. The Sisters Brothers, his Booker shortlisted 2011 western put him right there on my awesome authors list. Cracking open his latest offering, I hoped against all hope that it wouldn’t be a huge disappointment.

Luckily, it didn’t even take a full chapter to set my mind at ease.

Undermajordomo Minor follows Lucy (Lucien) Minor as he spreads his 17 year-old wings and leaves the old homestead behind to see what the rest of the world has in store. In the blurb, Lucy is described as a ‘compulsive liar and a melancholy weakling’. While this is more-or-less true, he’s still a very likeable character.

In his small-town, teenage innocence, his primary goal in life is to engineer a situation in which he can point at something with a pipe. That’s not much of an aspiration, I suppose, but what more can you expect from someone who, on their deathbed, merely wishes that he wasn’t so bored.

Lucy’s exciting new life begins when he takes a job at the Castle Von Aux, as the assistant to the majordomo, Mr Olderglough. Things aren’t all sunshine and gumdrops at the castle – the Baron hides away in the daytime and prowls the halls at night, mad with heartbreak since the Baroness upped sticks and headed to the West.

Meanwhile, Lucy explores the village, becomes acquainted with the local thieves and gamblers and meets Klara, the object of his affection. That goes just about as smoothly as you’d expect and reinforces one of the themes of the book – that love is about the worst kind of torment that can befall a man.

All-in-all, I loved the book. It’s funny, but not laugh-out-loud funny; it’s fantastical, without the need for witches and goblins; and it feels like you’re being told a story. After reading a couple of what-does-it-really-mean type books, a fireside tale like this was the breath of fresh air I didn’t know I needed.

Will you like it? I can’t answer that unfortunately, but I can say that you should give it a go. Actually, what are you doing at the moment? If you can, get down to your local bookshop and read the first chapter. If you find you’re on chapter 5 before you know what’s happened, then take that bad boy home and prepare yourself for a jolly good read!

(Pay for it first, obviously)

Incidentally, if you’re in London on the 1st October, Patrick DeWitt will be appearing in Foyles on Charing Cross Road for a chat with Jessamy Calkin. You can buy your tickets here for a piddling 8 quid a pop. What else are you going to do on a Thursday evening?

Definitely Maybe – Boris & Arkady Strugatsky

Definitely Maybe - Arkady & Boris Strugatsky

Definitely Maybe:

A good read? Definitely.

As good as Roadside Picnic? Maybe.

I’ve already mentioned my obsession with Roadside Picnic, so you can imagine my joy at finding out that Melville House were going to publish another book by Boris & Arkady Strugatsky as part of their Neversink Library.

This new edition was published in the last month but I found out about it AGES ago. It was like the break in the fifth season of Breaking Bad. I tried to hustle an advanced reading copy, but they were having none of it. I had to wait like everyone else. With all of the anticipation, I couldn’t help wondering if Definitely Maybe could fill the boots of Roadside Picnic…

definitely maybe

No, not that one

When I finally picked it up (from my favourite bookshop, in person), the damnedest thing happened. Every time I sat down to read it, something or someone would interrupt me. It was almost as if the Universe didn’t want me to read it. A couple of days ago, I said ‘to Hell with you, Universe’, and jumped right in.

Set in Leningrad in the 70s, the story concerns Malianov, an astrophysicist working on a thesis about how stars react to gas clouds…or something. He has sent the wife and child off on holiday so that he can get a bit of research done. When he finally sits down to work, it isn’t long before he realises that he is onto something, something big, something worthy of a Nobel Prize. But then the damnedest thing happens…

The chain of interruptions that follows leads Malianov to meet up with other professors who are experiencing similar weirdness to varying degrees of severity and in curiously individual forms. They try to find a link between their diverse fields of study and when they fail, they try getting drunk instead.

What the…?

That doesn’t work either and just as the chaos whirls to a crescendo, something really strange happens without the vaguest hint of warning. About half-way through the book, something changes, stays changed and is never explained. I don’t want to spoil it, but you can’t miss it and it’s definitely one of those rare double-take moments.

But, maybe that’s a little on the cryptic side.

definitely maybe

not that one either

To get back to the concrete business of what the book is actually about, it’s a story about a man who accidentally stumbles across something unimaginably powerful and has to decide between realising his lifelong ambitions and losing everything he has ever loved. The story itself has the pace and the mystery of a conspiracy thriller and it’s delivered with deadpan, defeatist humour, all without losing the cloud of certain doom.

I approached this book with one question on my mind – how does Definitely Maybe compare with Roadside Picnic? They both deal with humanity’s futility in the face of unknown powers. The message in both books is clear – we are all insignificant specks in a universe that doesn’t care about us, ignorant primates who only climbed out of the trees a few thousand years ago, hopeless playthings of vastly more intelligent beings.

It’s definitely not all bad though. In the world of Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, we encounter wonders equally fascinating and terrifying. Like a chimpanzee trying to work a landmine out, these alien artefacts could kill us at any moment, but we are still compelled to understand them. However, like poor Malianov, even the merest fraction of insight could come at a terrible cost.

Okay, maybe it is pretty bad, but that doesn’t change the fact that these stories are fantastic in every sense of the word. So give Definitely Maybe a go – it’s a bit left-field, a bit obscure, but you’ll read it in a couple of days…unless you get interrupted.

The Queue – Vladimir Sorokin

The queue - vladimir sorokin

The Queue – Vladimir Sorokin

NYRB

Looking for a short, experimental, soviet-era novel? We-he-hell, look no further!

The Queue by Vladimir Sorokin is set in Russia as the Soviet economy is stagnating into entropy. Commodities are hard to come by so whenever something good shows up, everybody rushes to buy it. I think it used to be a kind of joke back then that anyone who saw a line of people would naturally join it. It got to the point where nobody would buy anything from a shop that didn’t have a queue outside, assuming that the shop had nothing worth queueing for. People would stand in line all day to buy things they didn’t even need and, in a lot of cases, they didn’t even have to know what was at the other end.

And such is the case in The Queue. We’re never quite sure what everyone is expecting to buy and, generally speaking, neither are they. We get the occasional hint – it’s definitely American, it could be suede, they might have them in black – but all of these clues ultimately contradict each other so (spoiler alert) you never find out what’s so damned special that it attracts over a thousand hopeful Russians.

Historical idiosyncrasies aside, the style of the novel does enough to confuse the reader by itself. I say ‘novel’, but it’s teetering on the edge of becoming a script. The book is written entirely in unallocated dialogue. As the story progresses, we leave one conversation without warning and drift into an argument further along the queue. One moment, we’re listening to two people flirting with each other, the next, someone is buying a drink from a stall. Imagine what it’s like to stand still, in the middle of the street with your eyes shut, listening to the voices passing by – that’s the best way I can describe the sensation of reading this book.

Although I found it at times disorientating, I think, as an experiment, the book is just perfect. Sorokin executes the idea with a good deal of stoic Russian humour and takes us on an almost Joycean journey through all aspects of human life. But, in my opinion, the most perfect thing about the book is its length – because, as rewarding as I found the book, I know that had it been any longer, I might well have lost my patience with it.

All that said, it’s definitely worth a go. The Queue is full of gimmicks and quirks that I’d never seen elsewhere (like leaving a number of pages blank when the characters are asleep) and it has one of the strangest sex scenes that literature has to offer.

And if that doesn’t sell it…

In closing, here’s a bunch of Soviet jokes about queueing that I found on the internet:


What is 150 yards long and eats potatoes?
A Moscow queue waiting to buy meat.


Why are Russian meat shops four miles apart?
So the queues don’t get tangled up.


A Soviet man is waiting in line to purchase vodka from a liquor store, but due to restrictions imposed by Gorbachev, the line is excessively long. The man loses his composure and screams, “I can’t take this waiting in line any more, I HATE Gorbachev, I am going to the Kremlin right now, and I am going to kill him!”

After 40 minutes the man returns, and begins elbowing his way back to his place in the vodka queue as the crowd looks on. They begin to ask if he has succeeded in killing Gorbachev, to which the man replies: “No, I got to the Kremlin, but the line to kill Gorbachev was far too long, so I decided to come back and wait for my vodka”.


Still not bored of queues in Soviet Russia yet?

You Should Know About Don Camillo

the little world of don camillo giovannino guareschi penguin

The Don Camillo series – Giovannino Guareschi

You know what? You should know about Don Camillo and his adversary, Peppone. Don Camillo is the Catholic priest of a little village in Italy’s Po Valley – his ‘little world’. When we first meet Don Camillo, it is in an Italy trying to find its identity again after the Second World War. The eponymous priest is himself based on Don Camillo Valota, a priest who fought the Nazis as a partisan and was detained in Dachau and Mauthausen.

The fictional Don Camillo is enormous and “about as graceful in his movements as a division of armoured cars”, with hands like shovels and size 12 shoes. His physical immensity is matched by his personality which is by turns playfully mischievous and furiously vengeful. Like all priests, he talks to Jesus and has a particularly good relationship with the crucifix in his chapel – because this Jesus talks back.

The Communist mayor of the town, Peppone, is equally Don Camillo’s bitter political nemesis and his trusted friend and the dynamic between the pair is brilliant. Don Camillo, although a man of God, is not averse to committing little sins if it means thwarting Peppone’s ludicrous, politically charged schemes. Peppone isn’t blessed with Don Camillo’s intelligence but whatever he lacks, he makes up for in a militant belief in Russia, Lenin and the People. He’s a man with big ambitions and, as the mayor of the town, a man of influence. Sure, he’s an idiotic and quick-tempered communist but he’s well liked – so he must be doing something right.

Despite their political differences, the pair have a deep respect for each other – one they unsuccessfully try to mask. In many of the stories, they have to declare a temporary ceasefire in order to look after the interests of the town and, with a duo like Don Camillo and Peppone protecting it, the town is in danger only of farce.

Written and illustrated by Giovannino Guareschi, the first of the Don Camillo stories appeared in Candido magazine, in December, 1946, a couple of days before Christmas. It was so popular that Guareschi was bombarded with letters from fans demanding that he write more.

They’re like that in Italy.

the little world of don camillo giovannino guareschi penguinOn the whole, each story involves some farcical situation, usually sparked off by the latest mischievous episode in the ongoing feud between Don Camillo and Peppone. Having been born and raised in the region, Guareschi evokes post-war rural Italy perfectly. I wasn’t around the Po Valley at the time, mind you, but you can’t disguise the genuine article.

The stories can be read individually, if you like, but they blend together quite nicely. They were first published in English by Gollancz in the 50s as gorgeous little hardbacks. They’re ridiculously hard to find but I’ve tracked down two Penguins from the 60s and 70s so they’re probably easier to get hold of.

I’ve only recently come to learn of Don Camillo and it’s a perfect example of a series I should have known about. Sadly, it has faded into obscurity a little. I think anyone who has had the pleasure would agree that these books deserve to be read by everyone.

In the 50s and 60s, a series of five films were released starring French comic actor, Fernandel in the title role. Like the books, the movies are fantastic, but a nightmare to find in the real world although you can pick them up online for a small fortune. The first movie is available on Amazon for £15-£22 but take my word for it – it’s money well-spent.

 

A Bright Moon for Fools – Jasper Gibson: A Review

A Bright Moon for Fools - Jasper GibsonMeet Harry Christmas – an impatient, curmudgeonly Englishman with a drinking problem and a huge chip on his shoulder. After stealing some money from his girlfriend and incurring the wrath of William Slade, her psychotic stepson, Harry flees to the Venezuela – the ancestral home of his dead wife. Slade would never follow him there, would he?

Of course he would – you need some kind of unreasonable antagonist in a story such as this and they don’t get much more unreasonable than William Slade. Slade is a predatory oddball with a knife fetish and a very loose understanding of what constitutes consensual sex. When he isn’t raping or torturing, he is obsessively focussed on a single goal – killing Harry Christmas.

This spells trouble but Harry Christmas is one of those unpredictable drunks who needs no help in wreaking a havoc all of his own creation. He’s not without faults but, as the book progressed, I couldn’t help feeling a warped respect for Harry Christmas. Every now and then, he rails against ‘The Rot’ – the umbrella term for all that is wrong with the modern world and in the assault, it’s easy to find yourself agreeing with him.

But then you remember that he’s a compulsive liar and a dishonest criminal with a dark core of bitterness. We slowly discover the source of his hatred and soon realize that Harry has plenty of reasons to scorn the fates. After all, how can anyone else dare to be happy in his presence when life has dealt him such a cruel hand?

The story itself is great fun – it’s a farcical chase around Venezuela that falls somewhere between No Country for Old Men and A Confederacy of Dunces, having all of the terror of the hunt with the comedy of a despicable protagonist.

It’s not all laughs though. There are a few moments in the book that are so shockingly horrific as to leave no space for humour. I suppose this is Jasper Gibson’s way of emphasising Slade’s threat. He is a destructive sadist and the author treats us to a few scenes of his perversion. These scenes are in alarming contrast with the rest of the story and it can take a while to readjust to the humour after such a jolt.

That said, it’s still a great read with a visually-striking cover and, at £14.99, it’s a reasonably-priced hardback. It is, so far, the only offering from independent publisher, Inside the Dog Press, which is great news for all of you with anti-corporate agendas.

Jasper Gibson is the co-founder of The Poke which is a great way to waste a bit of time that would be better spent reading all of those books you have stacked up. Check out their review of A Bright Moon for Fools below…

The Liars’ Gospel – Naomi Alderman: A Review

the liars gospel - naomi aldermanYesterday morning, I picked up Naomi Alderman’s The Liars’ Gospel just to see what it was like. I had no real intention of reading it until the end but that’s exactly what I ended up doing.

Now, don’t be put off when I tell you that this is a book about Jesus. The reaction is to summon in your mind the image of some pious reflection of the life and works of God’s only son. That’s exactly what The Liars’ Gospel isn’t.

True, Jesus, or Yehoshuah, does form the epicentre around which the story unfolds but this is really the tale of the Roman occupation of Jerusalem and its brutal and bloody consequences.

The book is separated into four parts, each one a ‘gospel’ of a particular character. First, we hear the story of Miryam – you’d probably know her better as Mary. Here, the grieving mother harbours Gidon of Yaffo, a fugitive from a nearby village where a rebellion (one of many) has broken out. This rebel, little more than a teenage boy, is a follower of her son and brings news of his resurrection. As much as her heart wants to believe it, this is something she cannot accept as true.

Gidon is hungry for stories of his saviour but Miryam has none to give. However, we are treated to the tale of a strange boy who, much to his father’s (his biological father, at least) disgust, will not take a wife or otherwise behave as a man of the time should. He asks endless questions and wastes his time marvelling at nature.

Later, we feel Miryam’s sense of rejection as the adult Yehoshuah chooses a new family – his followers – and will scarcely acknowledge the one into which he was born. Despite her best efforts, Miryam cannot convince her son to return to the relative safety of his hometown and, even before he is crucified, she resigns herself to his loss.

Next up, we hear the tale of Judas, known here as Iehuda of Qeriot. One of Yehoshuah’s first followers, Iehuda watches helplessly as his old friend becomes intoxicated by the myth that has grown up around him. He can see that Yehoshuah has, willingly or otherwise, been used as a convenient tool for rebellion – a figurehead for a movement dedicated to removing the Romans from Jerusalem. The godly cause in which Iehuda once believed has become a ridiculous folly and little more than another cult.

He tries to make Yehoshuah see reason but is met with the same cryptic questions that he has come to expect. Caught in a crisis of faith and fearful for his life, Iehuda does the only thing he can and thus cements his name in history as the great betrayer. He reluctantly accepts his reward, changes his identity and allows the lie of his suicide to spread.

The third part concerns Caiaphas, the High Priest of the great Temple of Jerusalem – a figure the bible would have us believe as heartless and cynically concerned with the Temple’s financial interests. In this version, Caiaphas is a victim of circumstance. He is under pressure from Pilate to provide money for an aqueduct.

Again and again he refuses, rightly stating that the gold in the Temple’s coffers has been donated by the people for the upkeep of the Temple alone. He finally crumbles and in a risky attempt to point the finger of blame at his cruel Roman master, inadvertently instigates a riot in which hundreds of civilians are killed.

For me, the fourth and final story was the most interesting. This is the story of Bar-Avo (Barabbas), the thief, the rebel and the murderer of Roman soldiers. We hear of his rise through the ranks of the rebellion through acts of defiance and, of course, great remorseless violence. Through his bravery, he becomes notorious as a freedom fighter. He only wants to rid his land of these Roman scum an keeps the favour of the people by action, not empty rhetoric and preaching.

His fight becomes a counterweight to that of Yehoshuah’s followers. Much like Yehoshuah, we see him travelling the land recruiting men, one at a time, to the cause. Following an act of betrayal, Bar-Avo finds himself in a cell with the man proclaimed to be King of the Jews – a man he finds puzzling and disturbing. In a great scene, he uses Pilate’s vanity against him and surreptitiously negotiates his freedom.

I found this book fascinating as a piece of historical fiction. Naomi Alderman has stripped away the supernatural elements of the man we know as Jesus and portrays him as merely a man. Sure, he seems to be a man with more than his fair share of mental illness but what man is without such faults?

I’d definitely recommend this book to anyone but, having looked at some of the less-than-favourable reviews on Goodreads, it probably won’t go down too well with devout Christians. If you’re a Christian who expects their image of Christ the Lord to be reinforced by this book, I’d advise you to steer clear. If, on the other hand, you’ve got an open-mind and even a fleeting interest in Middle-Eastern history, you’ll probably be swept away.

The Crocodile – Maurizio Di Giovanni: A Review

the crocodile maurizio de giovanni“So what exactly do you do here at the San Gaetano police station?”

Lojacono decided to give the woman another chance and sat back down.

“I’m in the Crime Reporting Office. But that’s a front. I’m actually spending my days fighting a bloody poker duel with my computer. My weapon of choice is a five-card stud.”

New translated crime, that’s what you need – and I’m only too happy to oblige. I’ve just read The Crocodile (Il Metodo del Coccodrillo), a Neapolitan crime thriller from Maurizio Di Giovanni and it’s quite something.

Detective Inspector Giuseppe Lojocano is a Sicilian cop who finds himself in the purgatory that is the San Gaetano police station in the historic centre of Naples. Caught in a scandal back home, it is decided that it would be best for everyone if he disappeared for a while.

He sits at his desk all day and plays poker on the computer and he is under strict instruction to do nothing but serve his time and stay out of the way.

It should be an easy task but the long, idle hours only give him time to mull over his predicament and consider the shame he has brought upon himself, not to mention his wife and teenage daughter to whom he has become an embarrassment and a stronzo (look it up).

By some administrative fluke, he happens to be the only person on duty one night when the call comes through – there’s been a murder – a sixteen year old boy has been found in a courtyard with a bullet hole in his head.

Lojacono is the first at the scene which irritates his chief no end and he is ordered to return to his desk. Before he leaves, he makes sure to point out a piece of evidence – a pile of used tissues.

As is the habit of the local constabulary, the murder is brushed off as the work of the Camorra – an excuse that works very well until more murdered children are found. The crimes are identical – a single shot to the head at close range from a small calibre pistol and there is one more similarity – at every scene, the killer has left behind tissues soaked in tears.

The press learn of this curiosity and the murderer is soon dubbed The Crocodile – the beast who weeps before claiming his victims. His M.O. is obviously not that of your typical camorrista and soon, the efficacy of the police investigation is called into question. Although his superiors don’t want to listen, Lojacono is the only one with a different theory and he finds himself in a race against time to find the perpetrator before more children are killed.

As Andrea Camilleri did for Sicily and Michele Giuttari did for Florence, Maurizio Di Giovanni evokes the atmosphere of Naples. A Neapolitan himself, it’s perhaps strange that he has chosen an outsider for his protagonist. Lojacono is not only a stranger, but one who sees only the dark side of Naples. He omits the vibrancy and energy of the city and emphasises the ancient air of mistrust. The city mistrusts the sea, the sea mistrusts the city, the citizens mistrust the police and pretty much everyone walks around mistrustfully avoiding each other’s gaze. Everywhere there is anger and guarded hatred and the only joyous element Di Giovanni has thought to include is the quick-fire Neapolitan wit of the characters, caught in a constant battle of playful insults.

It’s a very dark read all-in-all but an enjoyable one and although it isn’t exactly filled with surprises, the strength of the characters keeps the pages turning. I’ve personally found in Lojocano a great creation and I’ll look forward to reading more.

Stoner – John Williams: a review

stoner - john williamsA couple of months ago, I opened a tote from our supplier and, mixed in with all of the familiar titles, was a Vintage classic I’d never seen before. Reading the title, my first assumption was that it was a biography of some feckless marijuana addict. After a quick glance at the blurb, I realised that it was an old American novel about the life of a college professor in the first half of the twentieth century.

“Oh.” I thought and promptly shelved it.

I forgot about it, categorising it in my head as a stuffy relic of little interest to anyone who isn’t a college professor.

Weeks passed until suddenly it exploded onto my Twitter feed. The reception was overwhelmingly positive and, for a good couple of weeks, I couldn’t check Twitter without seeing the hash-tag #weareallstonersnow accompanied by some evangelical recommendation. It seemed there was more to Stoner than I’d originally thought.

First published in 1965, John Williams’ Stoner charts the exploits and disappointments of William Stoner, farmer’s son and born-again literary enthusiast. When the opportunity arises to attend agricultural college, he reluctantly takes leave of his work on the land to learn better techniques for tending the soil turned and turned again by his forefathers.

It’s in the university that this green country-boy discovers literature and a new calling in life. At first, this world is elusive and almost impenetrable but he works hard, harder than his fellow students, to make up for a childhood without any literary influence outside of the Bible.

Soon, he meets Edith and unwittingly makes the biggest mistake of his life by falling in love and quickly marrying her.  Too late, he realises his folly but, ever the stoic, he accepts his lot and tries to make the most of a bad situation.

As the years wear on and wars come and go, William Stoner rises through the hierarchy of the college as a teacher eventually meeting adversity in the form of Hollis Lomax, Stoner’s colleague and nemesis.

Though his life is unremarkable, William Stoner can be included among the great literary heroes. He doesn’t fight in any war or solve any mysteries or rescue any damsels in distress but his triumph comes from his dogged forbearance of a less-than-kind life. He believes in the university as a sanctuary and continues to protect his principles even when his stubbornness proves detrimental to his career.

Though his life is riddled with failures, it’s Stoner’s minor victories that give us cause for celebration, not least because these are the successes we come to expect in our own mundane lives. After all, most of us will never be soldiers on a battlefield or historical figures of note. William Stoner is just a guy trying to do his job as best he can without inviting undue hassle. He isn’t a bust in a museum or the subject of a documentary – he’s one of us. With this fact in mind, it isn’t too bold to say that William Stoner may just be one of the most human protagonists you’re ever likely to encounter.

In conclusion, I’m delighted to admit that I was wrong in my prior assumptions about the book. It’s no stuffy relic but a forgotten treasure which deserves to be read by everyone and I look forward to the day when we can agree that we are all, indeed, Stoners now.

Why you should read Flann O’Brien

Flann O'Brien Books

My Flann O’Brien Collection…so far.

Last week, Rome had the honour of holding the second International Flann O’Brien conference. It was a great opportunity for Brian O’Nolan fans to come along and talk about Myles Na Gopaleen. If you’re a little confused, don’t worry – you’re meant to be.

Perhaps it’s his Catholic upbringing which led Brian O’Nolan to embody a holy trinity all of his own. We have Brian, the civil servant – Flann, the novelist – and Myles the columnist and I’m here to tell you why you should get familiar with at least two of the three.

joyceHe’s the other James Joyce

He practically invented post-modernism with At Swim-Two-Birds. It’s a book about a student who spends his days drinking in Dublin’s bars when he really should be studying. That’s the short description. The book is comprised of several parallel narratives – each one crazier than the last – ranging from retellings of Irish legends to pioneering experiments in meta-fiction.

Though they were mutual admirers of each other’s work, O’Nolan wasn’t above poking fun at his literary counterpart. In the Dalkey Archive, Joyce is cast as a disgruntled barman furious that some imposter has been using his identity to publish sacrilegious filth.  The filth in question is, of course, Ulysses.

peigHe isn’t Peig Sayers

For Irish people of a certain generation, the very utterance of the name ‘Peig’ can still provoke horrific flashbacks of compulsory Gaelige lessons. It was indeed a torture with no equal, but at least it gave us the skills needed to get Flann O’Brien’s jokes.

There are lots of jokes in Flann’s work that rely on knowledge of the Irish language. One example that springs to mind comes from the pages of the Dalkey Archive. Teague McGettigan is commissioned by DeSelby to paint a sign for his gate. DeSelby wants him to convey the enormity of his lawn, but in the old tongue. Now, the Irish word for ‘big’ is ‘mór’, pronounced ‘more’. In his attempt to translate his employer’s intentions, Teague gets it a bit wrong and DeSelby returns home to find a sign on his gate that says ‘lawnmower’.

Another linguistic pun of his was to spell English word as though they were Irish words, so instead of writing a piece for his column, he’d occasionally raight a píos fomhair higheas colm. I’ll move on before I completely alienate the English speaking world.

He’s hilarious!

Above all reasons to recommend Flann O’Brien, I’d cite his humour. For him, the English language was a plaything and his mastery is evident in the wealth of puns and double-entendres within his work.

Reading Flann O’Brien in public should be done with caution. I’ve had to excuse myself on more than one occasion for disturbing the peace of various alehouses. As an illustration of the Flann Effect, here’s Tommy Tiernan reading a passage concerning the invention of anti-alcohol.

“A cliché is a phrase that has become fossilized, its component words deprived of their intrinsic light and meaning by incessant usage…”

For a bite-size taste of what Flann is about, his Catechism of Cliché makes for a great snack.

I’ll leave you with a few appetisers:

When things are few, what also are they?
Far between.

What are stocks of fuel doing when they are low?
Running.

How low are they running?
Dangerously.

What does one do with a suggestion?
One throws it out.

For what does one throw a suggestion out?
For what it may be worth.

What else can be thrown out?
A hint.

In addition to hurling a hint on such lateral trajectory, what other not unviolent action can be taken with it?
It can be dropped.

What else is sometimes dropped?
The subject.

HHhH – Laurent Binet: A Review

hhhh-by-laurent-binetSometimes a book comes along which changes the way you think about books. In HHhH, Laurent Binet redefines historical fiction and injects some much-needed life into an arguably tired genre.

The book charts the fates of paratroopers Jozef Gabcík and Jan Kubiš and the blighted Operation Anthropoid. Their mission is to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, the Butcher of Prague and the man dubbed by Hitler to be “the most dangerous man in the Third Reich”.

And he is a right bastard.

The book’s title refers to the famous Nazi in-joke, “Himmler’s Hirn heisst Heydrich” – Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich – marking Heydrich as a chief architect of the Final Solution. Binet had originally planned to call it Operation Anthropoide but his publishers dissuaded him on the grounds that it sounded too much like science fiction. Now booksellers across the world are faced with another problem – HHhH is a title that’s almost impossible to pronounce without hyperventilating.

But it’s not just about killing Nazis. HHhH is a book for writers and in it, Binet wrestles with the dilemma of writing a historically accurate account without letting his own imagination fill in the gaps. He constantly refers to other accounts of the period, scorning their inaccuracy and implicitly highlighting the superiority of his own book.

The author’s real triumph is his ability to maintain the excitement and suspense even when we know that our heroes are embarking on a suicide mission. As their hour of judgement approaches, Binet stalls, withholding a climax which he himself cannot bear to confront. This makes for genuine edge-of-the-seat reading that rivals any mass-market thriller.

A measure of the book’s success is its universal appeal. Almost all of my fellow booksellers have read it and loved it. That’s quite a feat when you consider that we rarely all agree on anything. From a marketing standpoint, HHhH looks like a “man’s book” and that has been the main stumbling block whenever we try to recommend it. But, so enamoured are we that none of us will take no for an answer, stopping just short of holding customers hostage until they agree to buy it.

For me, HHhH is the best book I’ve read all year. That’s something that I would usually have great difficulty saying but in this case, I’ll gladly run up a mountain just to shout it out. It’s different, it’s exciting, it’s educational and it’s funny and it has landed right at the top of my ‘essential recommendations’ list.

If you haven’t read it yet then I’m not talking to you again until you do. That’s how passionately I feel about it.

If you have read it, and now feel a gaping void in your life, then worry not, because you probably haven’t read it all. Binet was so scathing about Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones that the publishers decided to omit a whole section of the book. Thanks to themillions.com, that section can be read in full here.

Enjoy!