Sunday, 24 January 2016

Book of the Month: I Served the King of England (Bohumil Hrabal)

I first became aware of the Czech novelist Bohumil Hrabal a few years ago, when I was, as was my habit, then, browsing through the fiction section of the local Waterstone’s. Two of his novels were prominently on display, and, importantly, were available for the price of one. On the front page was endorsement by Julian Barnes, who had described Hrabal as a ‘superb writer’. The combination of a bargain and recommendation from Julian Barnes was too much to resist, and I bought both the novels. They were entitled Closely Observed Trains, and Loudness of Solitude. I added the two novels to the ‘to-read’ list and forgot about them. Sometime ago, in an Oxfam book shop, I came across another novel by Hrabal(The Little Town Where Time Stood Still) and bought it (£1.99, another bargain). I have yet to read this novel as well.
The only novel of Hrabal I have actually read is I Served the King of England, and I borrowed it from the local library.
The narrator of I Served the King of England is a diminutive waiter called Ditie (the meaning of which is ‘child’, apparently). Ditie’s ambition is inversely proportional to his size. He may be a munchkin, and he may be a waiter, but he does not want to remain a waiter (although he would, forever, remain pocket-sized). He wants to open his own hotel and become a millionaire. Ditie works in various hotels, starting with Golden Prague, then The Trichota, and finally Golden Paris. Along the way he meets some memorable characters, such as a co-waiter at hotel Trichota, called Zdenek. As the second world war looms and the country comes under German occupation, Ditie marries a German woman. While Czech patriots are being detained and hanged, Ditie serves the Nazis in various hotels and retreats. After the war he becomes rich by selling rare stamps his wife (who dies during the war) has stolen from the Jews who were sent to their deaths in the concentration camps. With the ill-gotten money Ditie finally achieves his ambition and opens a hotel—the Hotel in the Quarry—and becomes a millionaire. Ditie’s fortunes nosedive with the 1948 Communist takeover of the country, although he does not quite see it that way. As the novel ends Ditie has ended where he began all those years ago: penniless doing manual job in a remote corner of Sudetenland; and indescribably happy.
I Serve the King of England has a picaresque, anecdotal feel to it. The novel, as it moves from one section to the next, seems more like a shaggy-dog story with which some old codger might regale his listeners over a pint of ale (or whatever the preferred alcoholic beverage in Bohemia was in the middle part of the twentieth century). The novel is more than a story; it is a story of stories. And all the stories—whether sunny or dark (and they do get darker as the novel progresses and the Germans invade Czechoslovakia) are fantastical in their tone, be they of the bandmaster uncle of Zdenek, the headwaiter at the Hotel Tichota, or the bets between Ditie and the maĆ®tre de at the Golden Paris Hotel (who actually served the king of England). It is almost as if reality is filtered through a prism which adds a magical dimension to everyday, mundane, happenstances. The writing is not stream of consciousness, but it takes the form of apparently unorganized juxtaposition Ditie’s perceptions and images as he trundles through life. Yet, as in a collage, it somehow comes together to form a whole that is more than a sum of its part.
Ditie, the narrator and protagonist of I Serve the King of England, comes across, at the beginning of the novel, as a man who is unequal to the task of viewing the world without frivolity. He is a man incapable of looking underneath the surface of things. Ditie is a hedonist. He also emerges as a man, as the novel progresses, lacking in conscience. While working in Hotel Paris in the 1930s Ditie starts learning German. Soon, he is practically the only waiter left in the hotel who would be prepared to serve Germans. The reader is not surprised when a German woman, ‘as short as’ Ditie and with sparkling green eyes, falls in love with him; and Ditie, forever in search of pleasure, marries her. Soon Germans invade the country and the novel enters a darker phase. As the Czech patriots are tortured and Jews are boarding the trains to concentration camps, Ditie subjects himself to the deranged Nazi project of producing ubermensch Aryan children (and produces a son who is mentally retarded). After the war ends Ditie makes his million, but his ‘German past’ continues to haunt him, and he remains persona non grata amongst his old acquaintances. Slowly, but surely, Ditie turns away from his obsession about material wealth and achieves (you hope) inner peace.
I Serve the King of England (the title is a bit of a mystery, as the narrator and protagonist, Ditie, never serves the king of England; he serves Haile Selassie, though, the exiled king of Ethiopia; it is Ditie’s boss at the Hotel Golden Palace, a peripheral character in the novel, who has served the king of England) is a bawdy, rumbustious and, at places, dark satire, which is, at the same time, a commentary on the mid-twentieth century Europe. Via his apparently unscrupulous narrator—who is funny precisely because he refuses to take anything and anybody, least of all himself—seriously— Hrabal is commentating on the emptiness of our existence, which is comic in a macabre way. The language is combative, at times hyperbolic, at times alarming. An intriguing novel.


Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Books Read in 2015

Below is the list of books I read in 2015.
  1. The Apologist (Jay Rayner)
  2. Things Fall Apart (re-read) (Chinua Achebe)
  3. The Rosie Project (Graeme Simsion)
  4. The English Teacher (R.K. Narayan)
  5. Kipling and Trix (Mary Hamer)
  6. Barracuda (Cristos Tsiolkas)
  7. The Old Masters (Thomas Bernhard)
  8. Woodcutters (Thomas Bernhard)
  9. The Last Word (Hanif Kureshie)
  10. The Blazing World (Siri Huvstedt)
  11. Boys and Girls (Joseph Connolly)
  12. To Rise Again at A Decent Hour (Joshua Ferris)
  13. Tigarman (Nick Harkaway)
  14. Where’d You Go Bernadette (Maria Semple)
  15. The Windsor Faction (D.J. Taylor)
  16. The Position (Meg Wolitzer)
  17. Lights Out in Wonderland (DBC Pierrie)
  18. The Interestings (Meg Wolitzer)
  19. The Legend of Holy Drinker (Joseph Roth)
  20. Stoner (John Williams)
  21. Strange Bodies (Marcel Theroux)
  22. Meatspace (Nikesh Shukla)
  23. The Dog (Joseph O’Neill)
  24. Empire Falls (Richard Russo)
  25. The Great Fortune (The Balkan trilogy) (Olivia Manning)
  26. The Spoilt City (The Balkan Trilogy) (Olivia Manning)
  27. All Quiet on the Western Front (re-read) (Erich Maria Remarque)
  28. The Golden Notebook (Doris Lessing)
  29. Americanah (Chimimamnda Ngozi Adichie)
  30. Last Friends (Jane Gardam)
  31. The Wife (Meg Wolitzer)
  32. Gilgi (Imgard Keun)
  33. Accidental Apprentice (Vikas Swaroop)
  34. Marriage Material (Sathnam Sanghera)
  35. All the Birds Singing (Evy Wyld)
  1. The Back Story (David Mitchell)
  2. How Do  They Do It (Robert Hutton)
  3. Romps Tots and Boffins (Robert Hutton)
  4. The Wicked Wit of Winston Churchil (Winston Churchill)
  5. Selfish Whining Monkeys (Rod Liddle)
  6. Antidote to Positive Thinking (Oliver Burkeman)
  7. Serge Bastarde Stole My Baguette (John Dummer)
  8. My Story as an American Au Pair (Linda Kovic-Skow)
  9. The Shrink and the Sage (Julian Baggini and Antonia Macaro)

    2015 was slightly less disappointing a year than 2014 was in terms of the number of books I managed to read—I read 45 books, 5 more than the books I read in 2014—but nowhere near 2010, when I reached the dizzy heights of reading more than hundred books.

    When I went through the list of books I read in 2015 I noticed that the first book I finished reading was The Apologist by Jay Rayner. I began reading this novel on Kindle between the Christmas of 2014 and the beginning of 2015, but could not finish it before 2014 ended. What is the novel about? If my memory serves me right, it is a satirical novel about a bloke who is very good at apologising (the clue is in the title of the novel) and is hired by multinationals and even the UN (I think) as their apologist. This guy makes a living by telling the world that he (or the organisation for which he works) made a mistake. I can’t now remember how the novel ends—whether that is because I have forgotten the ending or because I did not reach the end of the novel, I have forgotten (which, apparently, is a tell-tale sign of Alzheimer’s; except that I have remembered that I have forgotten, though I can’t be sure). Why did I even buy this novel? Seeing as I bought the novel on Kindle I am sure that there was probably a deal, and the novel was available for 99 p or 50 p or some such ridiculously low price. Also, I was a tiny bit interested in its author. I do not think anyone outside of the UK would have any reason to know who Jay Rayner is—The Apologist is his first foray into the world of fiction writing. Those who are from the UK could also be excused for never having heard of Jay Rayner if they either (a) do not read the culinary section of The Guardian or (b) have never watched the BBC cooker programme Masterchef. Jay Rayner, I am happy to announce, is a celebrated food critic. I have seen him on Masterchef where, with minimum of fuss he is known to turn the contestants into aspic jelly (which, he informs them, with the slight curl of his lower lip—enough to convey the disgust that has filled him at being subjected to the horrors of wading his way through the inedible chicken chaud froid—has not been blended properly with the roux) and make them rue the moment of insanity when they applied to be in the contest. A tad heavy on sarcasm, Jay, and, for that reason, I thought that his debut novel would be the showcase of his trenchant observation and cutting wit. I was disappointed.

    A few of the novels I read in 2015, while they all had widely different themes, had the common factor of utterly absurd plots, which, nevertheless, did not make the novels less entertaining for that.

    Strange Bodies is a novel by Marcel Theroux, son of the prolific novelist Paul Theroux, and the nephew of the (less prolific) novelist Alexander Theroux. Strange Bodies is a bit like Never Let Me Go in that it has the trappings of science fiction but fancies itself as literary fiction. Marcel Theroux takes inspiration from the transhumanistic philosophy of Nicolai Fyodorov (Fedorov, in English), an obscure nineteenth century Russian philosopher who put forth theories about the perfection of the human race and, by extension, extension of human life (or consciousness), which could be described as interesting (or bat-shot mental), and weaves a metaphysical thriller that rivets you from the first few pages and keeps you under its thrall till the end.

    Another novelist who boasts of impressive pedigree is Nick Harkaway (pen-name of Nicholas Cornwell), who is the son of the legendry John le Carre (real name David Cornwell). The plot of Tigerman, Harkaway’s third novel, is as improbable as the pseudonym of its author. The best way to describe Tigerman is that it is a comic book thriller. It is not an easy novel to read (neither is it particularly memorable) but Harkaway is a writer who has a great feel for language, and there are passages in the book remarkable for understated dry wit. The novel has one of the most surreal openings I have read in recent years (a pelican swallows a live pigeon).

    Vikas Swarup, the Indian diplomat who also writes fiction, and whose debut novel, Q and A, was made into the film Slumdog Millionaire, has a female protagonist, Sapna Sinha, in his third novel, Accidental Apprentice. Sapna, a lowly paid employee in a television shop, is selected out of the blue by an eccentric millionaire, Vinay Mohan Acharya, as a potential candidate for the job of the CEO for his empire, which may or may not be in trouble. But there is a catch (there always is). In order to qualify for the job Sinha has to pass seven tests (and let me tell you that these tests are very different from those set by Alan Sugar in his UK television series, The Apprentice), which, Acharya believes, would test whether Sinha has leadership qualities. To make matters more interesting (for the reader) and difficult (for Sinha) she would have no prior inkling as what the tests are and when they would commence: they are ‘life tests’, you see. Accidental Apprentice is the second book of Swarup, which I have read (the first one was Six Suspects, his second novel). Swarup has a penchant for the hyperbole, and the way he uses language ensures that there is a constant undercurrent of hysteria and emotions that are threatening to run out of control. The plot is preposterous and some of the twists test the limits of your credulity; however, for all that Accidental Apprentice is an enjoyable romp. Vikas Swarup can be called as an Indian Jeffry Archer (and I say this as a compliment).

    The Irish/American novelist Joseph O’Neil’s earlier novel, Netherland, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize a few years ago. I had liked that novel. For that reason I had expectations when I began reading The Dog, O’Neil’s most recent novel; and these expectations were largely met. If you like your novels to be plot driven, The Dog is probably not the novel for you. If you like humour, but prefer it to be as subtle as the performance of a circus clown, The Dog will not appeal to you. The Dog tells the story of its unnamed protagonist (his name, which, the reader is informed, begins with the letter ‘X’, is so embarrassing that he refuses to divulge it), an attorney, who takes up a job in Dubai for an old school acquaintance, a scion of an extremely wealthy Lebanese family which may or may not have made its fortune in shady business deals. (As an aside, The Dog is the first literary novel that I have read, where the action—in a manner of speaking—takes place in Dubai.) You will not be surprised to know that it does not end well for the unnamed protagonist, who, for an attorney, shows a touching (if ultimately misplaced) faith in the essential goodness of human nature. You can view The Dog as a commentary on things that are going awry in modern existence.

    Christos Tsiolkas, like Joseph O’Neil, had one of his novels shortlisted for several prestigious literary awards—the brilliant The Slap. I had enjoyed The Slap very much, and with great anticipation I read Barracuda, Tsiolkas’s next novel, only to be disappointed. It did not work for me. I have reviewed this novel earlier on the blog.

    Unlike O’Neil and Tsiolkas, DBC Pierre (another novelist with a pseudonym; real name Peter Finlay) won the Booker Prize for his (debut) novel Vernon God Little, way back in 2003. Vernon God Little was a novel that divided readers and reviewers, if I remember correctly. There were those who liked the novel, and there were others, who, paraphrasing a friend, felt that to call the novel shitty would be to malign faeces. It had taken me a while to get into that novel, but once I did I’d thought it was hilarious. Lights Out in Wonderland, the novel of Pierre which I read in 2015, has a ludicrous plot that is adorned with outrageous set-pieces. The prose lurches between banal (I lost count of the number of times the words ‘limbo’ and ‘nimbus’ appeared) and coruscating. On the whole, it is an uneven effort by the 2003 Booker-winner, but, still, a testimony of the outrageous imagination of DBC Pierre.

    Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World, has, at its heart, a hoax its (dead) protagonist plays on the art world. It also attempts to provide a wry commentary on sexism in the art world. The Blazing World is (for the want of better phrase) an intellectually sophisticated novel that is a meditation on identity and how a life can be perceived differently, as if through a kaleidoscope. The novel drags on a bit but is not as boring as Joseph Connolly’s Boys and Girls (see later) which, admittedly, is not saying much.

    I read, for the first time, The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing feministic totem, in 2015 (although in the preface of the edition I read Lessing was at pains to point out repeatedly that she did not consciously set out to write a feminist novel). One strand of the novel deals with the intellectual tortures of the middle-class English Communists of the 1960s: as the news of the atrocities in Russia begins to leak out, their rose-tinted view of Uncle Jo can no longer be sustained without premier league intellectual somersaults and distortions, which many of them are incapable of performing. Reading this bit of the novel fifty years on, when the full horror of the Communist regimes all over the Eastern Block has been laid bare, makes it difficult to appreciate the impact of these revelations at the time. (It may also be argued that Communism in England was never really taken seriously by the British public, and did not, for that reason, enter mainstream politics. The miseries and vexations of the Communists in the novel over whether or not they should stay in the party, borne out of an inflated sense of self-importance and the misplaced notion of the impact of the ideology they hold so dear on the wider society, are, inadvertently, amusing, almost comic.) The other strand, the one Lessing was so reluctant to own, but which has ensured the place of The Golden Notebook in the pantheon of the great novels of twentieth century, is of feminism. Anna Wulf, Lessing’s heroine, is a free woman, a feminist. There is a kind of self-consciousness about this portion of the novel. The situations (for example, between Anna and Molly’s husband, or between Anna and Molly’s son) and the dialogues (for example, between Molly and Anna) have theatricality about them; they seem like (very obvious) devices for Lessing to make her points. This part of the novel did not flow easily for me. Maybe that is just me.

    Joseph Connolly’s Boys and Girls, described on the blurb as a ‘superb satire of modern morality’, was, and it gives me no pleasure to say this, the most boring novel I read in 2015, beating Evy Wyld’s All the Birds Singing by a whisker (although All the Birds Singing won hands-down when it came to pretentiousness). Boys and Girls is set in the modern times, alright, but it is more of a high-octane melodrama than a satire. Connolly has taken a kernel of an interesting idea and tried to inflate it. Most of the novel is written in the stream of consciousness style, with inner monologues of the characters. Most of the characters do not have anything interesting to say, and they all sound exactly the same. A lot of the novel sounds like just drivel. Connolly was once described as ‘Wodehouse on acid’. In Boys and Girls he sounds more like ‘Wodehouse with Alzheimer’s’.

    Evy Wyld’s All the Birds Singing was strongly recommended by a member of my book-group. This guy does a job at the local council that should not even exist (the job; not the council); supports Labour party (he is overjoyed now that Comrade Corbyn is in charge); and is forever moaning that is good-for-nothing, brain-addled son, who is incapable of holding down a job because of his ‘issues’, is not getting Disability Living Allowance because the bloody psychiatrists wouldn’t accept that the boy is severely depressed and not a lazy skunk-smoker. The man has managed to get himself on some sort of group for the local library that selects ‘summer reads’ every year. Apparently All the Birds Singing was the unanimous first choice of this group (no doubt comprising morons like him with as much relation to literature as of a beef burger to haute cuisine). All the Birds Singing is about an Australian woman who lives on an unnamed island in Britain. The story of this woman has two strands. The present, which is told in the past tense; and the past, which is told in the present tense (and, in case that is not irritating enough, in reverse order, that is going back in time). We learn that the woman, who has a man’s name (Jake), was a prostitute in Australia after she ran away from home before she was kept a prisoner by an elderly Australian pervert. She then escapes from the clutches of the pervert and washes up in Britain where she becomes a sheep farmer. Evy Wyld is apparently on the Granta list of the most talented or the most exciting young novelists (or some such ludicrous title) in Britain. If that interests you, you can give All the Birds Singing a go. Or you can subscribe to my view that stabbing yourself in the foot would be less painful than reading this novel.

    I can’t quite figure out how I ended up reading three novels of the American novelist Meg Wolitzer, in 2015: The Position, The Interestings, and The Wife. Of the three The Wife was the most uninteresting; The Position was the most interesting; and The Interestings was not all that interesting. Wolitzer, however, writes extremely well; it is a pleasure to read her prose which manages the feat of keeping its distance from the dramas going on in the protagonists of her novels, and yet remaining connected.

    RK Narayan, the novelist Graham Greene admired the most, wrote many novels in his long life, a significant proportion based in the fictional town of Malgudi in South India. The English Teacher is supposed to be Narayan’s most autobiographical novel, based on Narayan’s short-lived marriage to a woman much younger than him and who died young (leaving behind a daughter whom Narayan, who did not remarry, raised alone; the daughter, too, pre-diseased Narayan). I have read a few novels of RK Narayan, which were much lighter in their mood and tone than The English Teacher. The English Teacher, like Narayan’s other novels, touches your heart with the simplicity of its prose, more alluring than any linguistic pyro-technique.

    I read two translated novels of the great Austrian novelist, Thomas Bernhard: The Wood cutters and Old Masters. It is impossible not to get sucked into the cantankerous, nihilistic rants of Bernhard’s protagonists who view death as a welcome solution to the bleak existence.

    Another member of my book-group, when I asked his opinion about Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy, waved a dismissive hand, and followed it with the dismissive comment, “literary Mills and Boons.” Undeterred, I started reading the trilogy, and read the first two books: The Great Fortune and The Spoilt City. I greatly enjoyed reading the two novels which turned Rumania and Greece as the grand canvas on which a vast array of characters play out the dramas of their lives. The novels depict the advent of the Second World War from the eyes of the expatriate British who are ultimately outsiders in the Balkans. I have not read any of the Mills and Boons novels, but I can see why the member of the book-group felt the trilogy was “literary Mills and Boons” (primarily because he is a stuck up, snobbish ass who is incapable that women can be serious writers, but, perhaps, also because the novels focus more on their quotidian concerns and problems as the World War looms). A great strength of the novels is Manning’s keen eye for the absurdities, the foibles and the pretentiousness. The prose is addictive. I am at a loss to figure out why I did not complete the trilogy by reading the last of the novels, Friends and Heroes, probably because I was waylaid into reading some book selected by the Bookgroup which I otherwise would not have read (and should never have read). I shall read Friends and Heroes this year.

    Top 10 novels read in 2015
  1. The Old Masters (Thomas Bernhard)
  2. The Great Fortune (The Balkan trilogy) (Olivia Manning)
  3. The Spoilt City (The Balkan Trilogy) (Olivia Manning)
  4. Woodcutters (Thomas Bernhard)
  5. The English Teacher (RK Narayan)
  6. To Rise Again at A Decent Hour (Joshua Ferris)
  7. Empire Falls (Richard Russo)
  8. The Dog (Joseph O’Neill)
  9. The Golden Notebook (Doris Lessing)
  10. Things Fall Apart (re-read) (Chinua Achebe)