Acts of Infidelity by Lena Andersson

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Edition: Picador, 2018, 208 pages.

Acts of Infidelity by Lena Andersson, translated from the Swedish by Saskia Vogel, follows Ester Nillson, a writer and poet, who gets involved in an affair with a married actor, Olof Sten, in the hopes that he will get divorced, and their affair will eventually turn into a long-term relationship, even though, right from the start, Olof admits to Ester that he’s not planning on ever leaving his wife. At the same time, he does not object to Ester’s advances. The novel unfolds as a detailed account of the relationship dynamic between these two delusional people that continues on for several years.

Both main characters come off as incredibly selfish and callous people, and it’s hard to sympathize with either of them. At first glance, it’s easy to label Ester as the villain of the story. You, as the reader, may initially catch yourself starting to blame Ester for the affair and wanting to shake some sense into her. Although she knows from the start that Olof is married, Ester is quite aggressive in pursuing a relationship with him anyway, and even tells him, very early on, that she wants to spend the rest of her life with him, not caring about the consequences. She seems very naive for her age and wears her heart on her sleeve, believing in true love that will eventually overcome any obstacle. It’s very frustrating to be constantly subjected to her thought processes and to read about a person, who so stubbornly doesn’t want to acknowledge the reality of the situation until you become aware of how cleverly the author has just played you. As I read on, I realized that the author intended to illustrate how we are conditioned to almost automatically assign blame to the woman in these situations, even though Ester, despite her obvious character flaws, isn’t the one who is lying and betraying her spouse. We see how the cheating husband, at the same time, tries to shrug off any responsibility for the affair, even going as far as constantly repeating that he and Ester are not in any kind of relationship, which is just plainly absurd.

Eventually, Ester is forced to realize that she has been relegated to the role of the mistress and the book examines the dichotomy between the categories of Wife – Mistress, that is often applied to women. It points out the double standard that exists here, where women often get defined and redefined in terms of these categories, while there are no such equivalent categories for men.

The mistress as an idea constitutes a third counterpoint between the complimentary woman/man. Her anatomy is woman’s but her autonomy is man’s. She is a third, the most frightening and most alluring, that which in the end must be pushed out of life’s bid for dualistic order.

I couldn’t help thinking that, if their roles were reversed, this situation would probably be portrayed as romantic – the passionate hero, who believes in true love, stubbornly trying to win over a married woman. Ultimately, this is a smart, darkly comic and feminist look at cheating, and this whole saga between Ester and Olof concludes with a very satisfying ending.

Thank you to the publisher for a copy of this book via NetGalley.

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I Still Dream by James Smythe

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Edition: The Borough Press, 2018, 400 pages.

I Still Dream by James Smythe is an engaging and intellectually stimulating science fiction novel exploring the impact of Artificial Intelligence and the border between human and machine, reminiscent of some of the great science fiction classics.

I was gripped from the very first pages of the novel that opens in 1997 when we meet Laura Bow, a very intelligent and tech-savvy 17-year old teenager with a passion for computers and coding. We learn that she has created a primitive AI system that she has named Organon, after the song Cloudbusting by Kate Bush from her album The Hounds of Love (1985). Laura’s nerdy enthusiasm for music and making mix tapes made me immediately connect with Laura and love the book even more. Organon serves as Laura’s confidant and a sort of therapist to help her deal with the mysterious disappearance of her father, a pioneering computer programmer. I thought the author did a great job at capturing the voice of a teenage girl and evoking the atmosphere of the 1990’s.

Her AI system soon gets into the hands of people who see the potential of it, and, as a result, Laura is suddenly propelled into the world of Silicon Valley. From there, the novel is divided into chapters, each of them jumping a decade into the future – 2007, 2017, 2027, 2037, 2047 – and following Laura’s life journey from her own or someone else’s perspective. The sudden jumps in time sometimes felt a bit jarring, mostly because I was left wanting more from some of the sections. I particularly enjoyed the author’s exploration of the culture of Silicon Valley – the personalities of the people, who work in the tech industry, the long working hours, and constant rivalry.

On a more personal level, some sections of the novel give us a glimpse into Laura’s personal life, her marriage, and the difficult life decisions that she needs to make. We also see the development of Organon that remains a constant companion to Laura throughout her life.

The novel also deals with some big questions concerning the development and future use of AI, our increasing reliance on technology, and the very topical subject of the collection and use of our personal data, and our right to privacy. I thought the author succeeded in creating a very vivid and believable scenario of our potential future. This was my introduction to James Smythe’s writing, and I will definitely be reading more of this work.

Thank you to the publisher for a copy of this book via NetGalley.

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Flights by Olga Tokarczuk

The Three Travel Questions: where are you from? Where are you coming in from? Where are you going?

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Edition: Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2017, 410 pages.

Winner of the 2018 Man Booker International Prize

Shortlisted for the 2018 National Book Award for Translated Literature

Flights by Olga Tokarczuk, translated from the Polish by Jennifer Croft, is a celebration of travel and the wanderers of the world. I’ve always enjoyed travelling and have even had opportunities to live for short periods of time in different countries, so this theme is very dear to my heart.

Flights is one of those novels that is difficult to categorise. It is a mix of essays, short stories and personal musings on the topic of travel and mobility, interspersed with discussions of human anatomy. Tokarczuk draws an interesting parallel between the mapping of the world and the study of the human body.

Just like the characters in the novel, the narrative seems to be constantly in motion, shifting from one topic to another, and even jumping around in time. It’s quite fragmented but, at the same time, all the different story threads seem to be joined under the thematic umbrella of travel.

The narrator’s experience in an anatomy museum and meditations on the human body,  the science of preserving human body parts, and the use of anatomical models made from wax reminded me of certain passages in Compass by Mathias Énard, where the protagonist ruminates on the strange appeal and purpose of anatomical models. In fact, I believe that, at one point, the protagonist of Compass visits the same anatomy museum in Vienna. It must be quite a memorable place. 😜

Moreover, similarly to Énard in Compass, Tokarczuk discusses the importance of travel as a way to broaden your mind. Tokarzcuk examines the complexities of modern travel, the psychology behind it, and suggests that we should go and discover places for ourselves, without the influence of travel literature that robs us of the opportunity to form our own first impression of a place.

Describing something is like using it – it destroys; the colours wear off, the corners lose their definition, and in the end what’s been described begins to fade, to disappear. This applies most of all to places. Enormous damage has been done by travel literature – a veritable scourge, an epidemic. Guidebooks have conclusively ruined the greater part of the planet; published in editions numbering in the millions, in many languages, they have debilitated places, pinning them down and naming them, blurring their contours.

However, for some people, travel can also be a way to escape. One of the most memorable stories in Flights follows a woman who takes aimless trips around the city as a way to escape from the suffering of her home life. She meets a strange, shrouded woman who preaches a philosophy of rejecting materialism in favour of wandering the world.

Whoever pauses will be petrified, whoever stops, pinned like an insect, his heart pierced by a wooden needle, his hands and feet drilled through and pinned into the threshold and the ceiling. […] This is why tyrants of all stripes, infernal servants, have such deep-seated hatred for the nomads – this is why they persecute the Gypsies and the Jews, and why they force all free people to settle, assigning the addresses that serve as our sentences. […] What they want is to pin down the world with the aid of barcodes, labelling all things, letting it be known that everything is a commodity, that this is how much it will cost you. Let this new foreign language be illegible to humans, let it be read exclusively by automatons, machines. That way by night, in their great underground shops, they can organize readings of their own barcoded poetry. Move. Get going. Blessed is he who leaves.

Another interesting aspect of the book was how Tokarczuk discussed the concept of time, and how modern air travel can often distort our sense of time – how strange it sometimes feels to travel across different time zones. It’s the closest that we can get to time-travel.

This is a hard book to talk about because it is made up of by so many fascinating story threads. This is a very erudite, and often moving, read about the value of travel, of being in motion and leaving behind our own personal traces on the world. I highly recommend it and look forward to reading more of Tokarzcuk’s work.

What makes us most human is the possession of a unique and irreproducible story, that we take place over time and leave behind our traces.

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Vernon Subutex, 1 by Virginie Despentes

Why are certain people determined to fuck up their lives while for others it seems so easy to do things the way they are supposed to be done?

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Edition: MacLehose Press, 2017, 352 pages.

Shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker International Prize

Vernon Subutex, 1 by Virginie Despentes, translated from the French by Frank Wynne, is the first book in a trilogy following Vernon Subutex, a middle-aged former record store owner with a serious Peter Pan complex. The novel could be described as a mix of High Fidelity by Nick Hornby and Michel Houellebecq, with a touch of Frédéric Beigbeder.

Vernon Subutex was once the proprietor of Revolver, a hip record shop in Paris that fell on hard times in the wake of the digital revolution. Vernon was forced to close the shop and ends up basically unemployable. Moreover, following the death of his rock star friend and benefactor Alex Bleach, Vernon also gets evicted from his apartment and is homeless, so he decides to reconnect with some of the people from his past. At the same time, a rumour spreads online that Vernon is in possession of the last recordings of Alex Bleach, so a group of people are on his tail in the hopes of making good money from the tapes.

The novel includes a vast cast of characters and their voices blend together to form a portrait of contemporary French society, set to the soundtrack of 80’s and 90’s rock music. The book is full of music references, so if you’re a fan of books that come with their own soundtrack, you might want to give this a go. All of the characters are bitter and self-absorbed people who were once part of youth culture but now find themselves stuck and alienated in their adult lives. However, instead of regretting some of their own life choices, they are resentful of the world for the lack of meaning in their lives. The book constantly switches between different perspectives and forces us to spend time in the minds of people that reflect the worst in society, and the book confronts us with opinions that are very problematic or just plain wrong.

The novel touches upon a lot of topical issues, but I felt that it essentially tries to examine the causes and effects of alienation, and how it leads to aggression and hate. Most of the other characters in this novel desperately try to cling to the past, the glory days of their youth, when they felt invincible and could shrug off any responsibilities and guilt of deviating from the “right” path. The novel seems to ask, what is the cause of their alienation? Are they responsible for it themselves, or it the fault of society, the government, social media, capitalism? The book doesn’t offer any clear answer, but it provides some effective examples of how alienation and hate erode the human soul. The novel really succeeds at showing the ugly side of modern society, and I think you have to be in the right mood to read about it. I can understand why this is such a polarising book.

[…] that unconscious ease that comes of being so young – still oblivious to the blows that will destroy parts of her. Past the age of forty, everyone is like a bombed-out city.

I’m curious, yet hesitant, to continue on with this trilogy because I’m still not sure if this book was just the set up for what will later become a brazen critique of contemporary society, or if the next two instalments in this trilogy just offer more of the same.

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The End of Loneliness by Benedict Wells

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Edition: Sceptre, 2018, 240 pages.

The End of Loneliness by Benedict Wells, translated from the German by Charlotte Collins, winner of the 2016 European Prize for Literature, follows siblings Marty, Liz and Jules, who, in the wake of the tragic death of their parents in a car crash, are forced to grow up very quickly and adapt to their new lives. It’s a moving story about family ties, love, memory, grief, loneliness and the long shadow cast by childhood trauma.

I really loved the first half of this novel that describes the family dynamic before the tragic car accident. Their father was a timid and emotionally fragile artist and their mother was a teacher, a graceful and incredibly charming woman, described as a mixture of Grace Kelley and Ingrid Bergman. The three siblings had an idyllic childhood that was often spent vacationing in France. At the same time, the author was very successful at building tension in this section of the book. Despite the picturesque descriptions, there was a constant sense that something dark is lurking just around the corner.

Following the death of their parents, the siblings are sent to a bleak boarding school, and from that point on, the novel explores how each of them adapts to this new situation, and the different paths that they take later in their adult lives. We see how their relationship dynamic changes during the course of their lives. They are all very flawed individuals, but that’s what makes them believable.

Another strength of the novel is how the author examines the theme of loneliness that seems to follow the characters throughout their lives, and we see how each of them, in their own way, try to alleviate the “burden” of loneliness.

I was hoping that the book would spend an equal amount of time following the life story of each sibling (I was particularly interested to hear more about Liz), but in the later part of the novel, the author chose to mainly focus on the life of the younger brother, Jules, who was only 11 when their parents died, and who comes across as the most introspective of the three siblings. He often ruminates on the past and imagines the alternative lives that he and his siblings might have had if they had not gone through the trauma of losing their parents at such a young age.

A major theme of the book is how our memories might sometimes get distorted in order to protect us. At certain points throughout the book, Jules realises how he unintentionally or, in some cases, deliberately, misremembered certain events or conversations. I think this book would appeal to fans of Julian Barnes whose books often deal with the unreliable nature of memory. Certain parts of this novel particularly brought to mind Barnes’s novel The Sense of An Ending.

Thank you to the publisher for a copy of this book via NetGalley.

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Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi

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Edition: Oneworld Publications, 2017, 272 pages.

Shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker International Prize

Set in 2005, Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi, translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright, is a fascinating and cleverly constructed portrait of war-torn Baghdad in the wake of the American invasion that includes subtle allusions to Mary Shelley’s gothic masterpiece Frankenstein.

Featuring a vast cast of characters from diverse backgrounds (the character list at the beginning of the book was much appreciated), the novel provides a glimpse into the lives of people, who try to lead normal lives amidst the violence and suicide bombings that have become an everyday background noise in Baghdad.

In this chaos, we meet Hadi, a junk dealer, who picks up stray body parts that are left on the streets of Baghdad in the wake of car bombings and stitches them together to create a human being in the hope that the complete corpse would be treated as a person and given a proper burial. However, through a series of coincidences, the corpse is reanimated from the soul of Hasib, a security guard who lost his life during another car bombing and, unable to locate his body, lodged inside Hadi’s creation, the so-called Whatsitsname. The creature then roams the streets of Baghdad at night, seeking to avenge the deaths of the victims whose body parts make up his body, so that they could rest in peace.

“With the help of God and of heaven, I will take revenge on all the criminals. I will finally bring about justice on earth, and there will no longer be a need to wait in agony for justice to come, in heaven or after death. ‘Will I fulfil my mission? I don’t know, but I will at least try to set an example of vengeance – the vengeance of the innocent who have no protection other than the tremors of their souls as they pray to ward off death.”

Similarly to the monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Whatsitsname feels misunderstood when people equate him to a criminal because he sees himself as a kind of harbinger of justice. At the same time, the elderly Christian woman Elishva views Whatsitsname as an answer to her prayers, since she believes that the creature has the soul of her missing son.

What stood out to me in this novel was how the author not only managed to write a complex and effective allegory for the never-ending cycle of violence in Iraq, but also created characters that aren’t just chess pieces that make the plot work, but have distinct personalities, goals, dreams, and inner demons. The novel never tries to manipulate with the reader’s feelings but instead casts a satirical lens on the horrors faced by the inhabitants of the city.

Whatsitsname soon becomes a media sensation, and a local journalist, Mahmoud al-Sawadi, is given the task to investigate and write a magazine article about the mysterious creature that is stalking the streets of Baghdad and terrifying its inhabitants. Through the connections of Ali Baher al-Saidi, the prominent owner and editor of the magazine,  Mahmoud also comes into contact with the Tracking and Pursuit Department, a strange special information unit, supposedly set up by the Americans, that employs astrologers, mediums, and soothsayers to investigate unusual crimes and make predictions about future crimes.

Eventually, Whatsitsname discovers that he needs to kill more people to replace his old body parts, and what initially started as a revenge mission against criminals to bring justice, soon turns into a seemingly never-ending killing spree where the lines between criminals and innocents become very blurred. Violence leads to even more violence and Whatitsname becomes a clever symbol of the vicious cycle of violence that plagues Iraq.

‘There are no innocents who are completely innocent or criminals who are completely criminal.’ This sentence drilled its way into his head like a bullet out of the blue. He stood in the middle of the street and looked up at the sky, waiting for the final moment when he would disintegrate into his original components. This was the realization that would undermine his mission – because every criminal he had killed was also a victim.

He also attracts a group of assistants and followers, who help him carry out his mission. However, they soon get involved in their own inner conflicts and begin to splinter into factions in a way that brought to mind the brilliant sequence from the 1979 Monty Python film Life of Brian in which a group of followers are squabbling over how to interpret a “message” from their Messiah.

I often see this novel marketed as a horror story, but I think this label is doing it a disservice, because people that will go into this expecting a scary story about a zombie who kills people on the streets of Baghdad, will most likely be disappointed. This is a literary novel about the effects of war that borrows elements from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and gives them a modern spin. One of my favourites of the 2018 Man Booker International Prize shortlist, Frankenstein in Baghdad is a novel that I definitely want to revisit sometime in the future.

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Like A Fading Shadow by Antonio Muñoz Molina

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Edition: Tuskar Rock Press, 2017, 319 pages.

Shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker International Prize

Like A Fading Shadow by Antonio Muños Molina, translated from the Spanish by Camilo A. Ramirez, reimagines, with meticulous attention to detail, the brief time that James Earl Ray spent in Lisbon while he was on the run from the authorities following his assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968. Moreover, the account of Ray’s time in Lisbon also serves as a jumping-off point for a parallel narrative which delves into the author’s own memories of the first time that he visited Lisbon in 1987 as a 31-year-old aspiring writer, who was then living a kind of double life as a husband and father of two small children on the weekends in Madrid, and as a bachelor during the week in Granada, where he worked as a civil servant by day and frequented nightclubs at night.  We also learn that he is a jazz aficionado, who hopes to translate the aesthetic of jazz music into his writing and the book is scattered with his musings on the process of writing fiction. The novel then proceeds to follow these two narratives, using alternating chapters.

The chapters following James Earl Ray unfold as a police report that catalogues Ray’s every move, his various aliases, personal items, people that he met during his stay in Lisbon. This obsessive cataloguing soon becomes quite tedious and repetitive, but I suspect this was a deliberate choice by the author to make a point that detailed knowledge of even the most trivial minutiae about a person’s life can’t give us true insight into a person’s mind.

It is amazing how much you can learn about a person and still never truly know him, because he never said what was most important: a dark hole, a blank space; a mug shot, the rough lines of a facial composite based on disjointed testimonies and vague memories.

The parallel narrative focuses on the author’s personal memories of his escapades in Lisbon, while he was doing research for his breakthrough novel A Winter in Lisbon. I must admit that I struggled to remain interested in these chapters that describe his walks around Lisbon, during which he is preoccupied with extreme navel-gazing and philosophising about the writing process, while his wife is alone in Madrid caring for a toddler and a newborn baby. He just comes off as an incredibly selfish dude-bro.

I was discovering a capacity I had rarely exercised in my life: the ability to radically change my circumstances and immerse myself in the unexpected; to forget entirely what I had left behind; to lose myself, like in a jungle or a submarine, in the things that really interested me, a novel, a film, a song, an emotion; to disappear entirely, without a trace, not even a thread that could guide me back, no remorse, no nostalgia, no memory. I did not miss anyone and no memories could distract me from that present. I was not thinking about my wife, who was overwhelmed taking care of the two children. I was not thinking about the three-year-old boy nor the baby who that very same day was turning one month old. I was not thinking about my job in Granada that awaited me in just three days.

Where the novel truly succeeds is painting a vivid portrait of Lisbon. It’s full of beautiful descriptions of the city that made me daydream about sitting in a café in Lisbon, enjoying a cup of great Portuguese coffee and a pastel de nata.

My eyes have never seen light like the one that washes over Lisbon; its colors have an attenuated quality: the blue of the sky and the red of the roof tiles, the blues and greens and yellows and ochers of walls punished by the maritime weather; the brightness of the azulejo tiles; the red, open flowers on the tops of tropical trees with trunks like the backs of elephants.

At the same time, I was constantly questioning the purpose of mixing these two parallel story threads of James Earl Ray and the author as a young man. I found the chapters that tried to image James Earl Ray’s mental processes during his time in Lisbon, where he fled in the hopes of receiving a visa to then try his luck as a mercenary in one of Portugal’s colonies in Africa, were quite compelling. HHhHpbHowever, I felt that the chapters focusing on the author’s personal memories had very little to do with the James Earl Ray story and constantly interrupted the rhythm of the novel. Based on the synopsis, I was expecting that the novel would have a similar narrative structure to HHhH by Laurent Binet, a fascinating story of heroism that reconstructs the events of Operation Anthropoid in 1942, mixed with the author’s self-reflection on the writing process and the genre of historical fiction.

Sadly, this book didn’t meet my expectations, however, one of the highlights of Like A Fading Shadow were the sections, in which the author references different works of literature, film, music and art and suggests that parallel to real cities, there are fictionalised versions of  these cities, created by artists, that only exist in the specific pieces of art.

In a somewhat similar way, Muños Molina seems to also suggest that people have fictionalised counterparts as well, which are created and shaped by the observations and perceptions of other people. The author ruminates on the idea that, as much as we can learn about a person through research, we can never truly know another person, so every attempt that is made by an author to view the world through someone else’s eyes is essentially doomed to failure. It is clear that the author did a massive amount of research on James Earl Ray while writing this novel, however, the amount of detail presented in this book made it a slog to get through. Overall, the novel had some interesting ideas about literature and the act of trying to reconstruct events from someone’s life, but ultimately I felt that it lacked a clear focus. Moreover, the way the author decided to end the story felt like another diversion, which only reinforced my feeling that the two story threads didn’t work that well together, but I’m nevertheless intrigued to try something else by Muños Molina.

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