Book Review: Quicksand, by Henning Mankell

Available now in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_quicksandQuicksand is the late Henning Mankell’s account of his thoughts and memories from the day he was diagnosed with cancer in late 2013 through to May 2014, the end of his first course of chemotherapy. Over sixty-seven short chapters, some no more than a few paragraphs, he pulls together incidents and memories, concerns and beliefs, passions and regrets, from his life, and lines them up alongside his fight against cancer. It was first published in Swedish in 2014, with the English translation following in February 2016, four months after Mankell’s death.

Many will know Mankell from his most widely published and adapted works, the Wallander novels, but these form only a small part of his prolific output. He also wrote more than fifty original plays, two series of children’s books, several screenplays, and a dozen other novels. In 1977, fifteen years before Wallander, when he was 29 years old, he published his first novel. In Quicksand ,Mankell tells how he did not submit the manuscript until he was absolutely sure it was good enough. Like all artists, Mankell had doubts about his ability but when, a few weeks later, he receives confirmation that the novel will be published, he is pleased but not particularly surprised. Throughout Quicksand we see Mankell’s remarkable combination of humility and self-belief.

A writer is an acute observer, and Mankell observed and remembered a lot. The short chapters in Quicksand traverse an extraordinarily full life. Mankell is concerned about big questions, the disposal of nuclear waste and global warming in particular threading their way through the whole book. But these go side by side with many private moments: a dream he once had about the trenches in Flanders; visiting a church lost beneath shifting sands, only its bell tower visible; seeing a boy killed grotesquely in a motorway accident.

The sub-title of Quicksand is What It Means To Be A Human Being. Another writer might, when faced with death, have indulged in self-pity or taken the chance to try and justify past action and mistakes. Apologies to abandoned lovers and children might have been attempted, or reconciliations to former friends. The closest Mankell gets to this is an acknowledgement that he might not have been the best theatre director during his time in Maputo, or that he may regret the way he treated some of his former lovers.

Mankell was always curious. Several times he tells us how he read everything there was to read on a topic. Radiation and nuclear waste, cave paintings, European history, climate change, ice ages – through the fine detail of remembering a stay in a town decades ago, or a photograph, or a street performance, everything he learns is turned into a question about our past and our future. He knows his own future, like everyone else’s, was always limited in time. No-one lives forever. He knows that just a century ago, living to nearly seventy years of age would have been highly unusual. He’s grateful for the years he’s had but the cancer diagnosis is, of course, still a shock. The fear and uncertainty it causes, the bringing into sharp focus an understanding that most of the things you’ll achieve in your life are now in the past, are the scaffolding within which this book was created.

Conspicuously absent from Quicksand are parents, children and lovers, except for his fourth and last wife, Eva, despite the fact he was married four times, and had four sons, each by a different partner. Although understandable – Quicksand isn’t an autobiography – I was surprised that the events that made such a strong impression on Mankell either did not include his relationships and children, or that he chose not to include them.

Mankell wrote in Swedish and many of his works in English, including Quicksand, were translated by Laurie Thompson, a distinguished academic and founder of the Swedish-English Literary Translators Association. It is hard to believe Quicksand was not written in English, so lucid is the phrasing, so perfectly captured are Mankell’s emotions on the page. It was Thompson’s last translation. He died of cancer in June 2015, four months before Mankell in October 2015.

The older we get, we more we realise how short life is. Seneca told us this in his essay On The Shortness Of Life over two thousand years ago, but still we forget it. Mankell, with his fiction, his theatre, his human rights activism, his political life, his relationships, his ever-hungry curiosity for knowledge and about people, packed in more than most but sixty-seven years is not that long. He wanted more. We should be thankful that before their deaths he wrote, and Laurie Thompson translated, this book. Read it, put it alongside your copy of Seneca, and stop wasting what time you have left.

Reviewed by C P Howe

by Henning Mankell
Published by Harvill Secker
ISBN 9781846559522

Book Review: Tightrope, by Simon Mawer

Available in bookstores nationwide.cv_tightrope

Marian Sutro survived. For those who fell in love with her in The Girl who Fell From The Sky, this revelation was surely met with joy and fear in equal measure. Did we really want to know about the horrors she experienced after her arrest? And how could Simon Mawer possibly do better with Marian’s story than that dark and gut-wrenching ending, let alone risk venturing into the well-worn cold war spy genre?

Mawer must have been tempted to continue Marian’s story in the conventional way he told it in The Girl who Fell From The Sky, where we see her adventures unfold from a close third person point of view. Instead Mawer does something quite different and much more ambitious in Tightrope and it is this, at least in part, that keeps the book alive.

Tightrope is not told by Marian at all, but instead by Sam Walcott, her nephew. The book starts with Sam visiting Marian in Switzerland. She is now an old woman, and they haven’t seen each other for a very long time. Her greeting to Sam leaves us in no doubt. ‘Samuel,’ she said. ‘It must be almost fifty years.’ Inside, Sam sets his tape recorder running, and we understand right away this is no social visit. Accepting the framing of the story, that everything we read from now on is Sam’s interpretation, is critically important to understanding what is going on in Tightrope.

Although Tightrope starts with Sam recounting his visit to Marian in the first person, the point of view soon starts shifting around as Sam imagines how people, including Marian, felt, what they saw, and their motivations. This device gives Mawer the freedom to go anywhere and to anyone with the story, and he does, even showing some of the action from the point of view of minor characters. He often drops back to Sam in the first person, who explains directly how he deduced who did what, or how he can’t be sure about some other incident. This reminds us not only what is going on – that Sam is piecing together Marian’s post-war life – but also that the whole thing is Sam’s interpretation. Was Marian’s husband as unexciting as Sam likes to think? Was she really as brave as he describes? And does Sam interpret Marian’s decisions in an overly generous way, showing her in a more favourable light than she deserves?

The chapters in Tightrope are short, often with one-word titles, and Mawer is confident enough to not resort to using places and dates to signpost where we are. We are in safe hands with Mawer as an author, and we know only as much as Sam knows. But what does he know? He has relied on Marian’s stories and explanations, limited secret service records, and his own love-and-lust-struck memories from fifty years ago. These are hardly reliable sources.

And so, where the story does wobble a little, with cold war and secret service cliches in the language, the plot twists echoing just a little too much le Carre, or the characters Marian encounters appearing somewhat stereotypical, we can forgive Mawer because it is Sam’s voice, not Mawer’s, telling the story. Mawer echoes many of the real-life events of the sixties and seventies, even referencing directly some of the people involved, while presenting fictionalised versions of others, all somehow connected to Marian’s story.

There’s still plenty of darkness in Marian’s life throughout Tightrope. She’s not that good – otherwise she wouldn’t have been caught in The Girl who Fell From The Sky – and she has weaknesses that leave her vulnerable. But she is also passionate, brave and confident, and it is the combination of all this that gives us some extraordinary moments in Tightrope.

While the subject matter of Tightrope has been traversed many times before, and some have asked whether Mawer should have even attempted to go into the genre, his approach – to come at it side-on, through Sam, whose own career in the secret service is only hinted at – keeps it fresh and alive to the very end.

And, of course, everyone still loves Marian Sutro, flaws and all. That’s not a surprise, the story being told through Sam’s eyes, Marian being the only one he ever loved. If you haven’t read The Girl Who Fell From the Sky I recommend you pick up a copy first, and I guarantee you’ll want to move on to Tightrope without delay.

Reviewed by C P Howe

by Simon Mawer
Published by Hachette New Zealand
ISBN 9781408706206

Book Review: The Harder They Come, by T C Boyle

Available in bookstores nationwide.cv_the_harder_they_come

T Coraghessan Boyle is prolific. Since 1982, he’s published fifteen novels (The Harder They Come is his latest) and ten collections of short stories. The Harder They Come is an ambitious, disturbing account of America today, as well as a harrowing story of suspense as the tragedy within it unfolds.

Told in the third-person voices of three main characters – Sten, Sten’s son Adam, and Adam’s lover Sara – Boyle does a great job of showing us their worlds, their beliefs and above all their disillusionment with the way their lives have turned out. Boyle keeps up the pace by constantly switching between Sten, Adam and Sara, and by splitting the book into short chapters of no more than ten or twelve pages each. The action and suspense doesn’t falter for a second.

Sten is a Vietnam veteran but, unlike many other returned soldiers of that despised conflict, he hasn’t ended up on the street or in prison. A retired high school principal, he has sustained a satisfactory marriage and raised a child. Of course he is damaged, but his life since the war has consisted of high school politics, parent-teacher evenings and taking his wife out to dinner once a week.

Underneath this conventional veneer, though, is a violence that pervades every page of the story. Is Sten an innately violent person? Does it come from Sten’s service in Vietnam? Or is it the frustration and impatience all men in the seventies feel, as the ends of their lives approach and they realise they’ve already achieved all they will, and there’s nothing more of note to come? Boyle makes it clear, without ever being explicit, that Adam’s troubled, dysfunctional, violent life is a direct unintentional result of his relationship with his father.

The book starts with a sudden act of violence by Sten, in the unlikely surroundings of a shore excursion on a retirees cruise holiday. It horrifies him, but everyone else thinks him a hero. He can’t deal with it; it changes everything for him and his wife, and shows us a hint of what’s in store in the rest of the story.

The characters in The Harder They Come don’t help themselves with their irrational, resistant, and unhinged behaviour, but this merely throws the nature of society in America – and, undoubtedly, other western societies – into sharp relief. It is not entirely their fault. Whether it is Sara, desperately rejecting conventional society, repeating ‘I don’t have a contract with you’ to anyone representing officialdom, but still obsessed with her calorie intake; or Adam, pining for life as a ‘mountain man’ pioneer from two centuries ago, retreating to the woods to grow drugs, and hating the Chinese, Mexicans and other ‘aliens’; or even Sten, trying to come to terms with his so-called heroic act on the shore excursion, they all need the kind of help you can’t get in California these days unless you’re seriously wealthy.

The subtle way in which Boyle has things unravel from simply odd and awkward to disturbed and tragic is masterful, as if one moment you’re scrambling down a steep but manageable scree slope but the next, before you know it, you are flying out of control. You could have done something about it, but you didn’t realise until it was too late. That applies to everyone in this story.

The Harder They Come doesn’t bother with lots of fancy flashbacks, although there are some, or with complex narrative structures. Boyle captures the different voices of the three characters brilliantly and distinctly. Sometimes the chapters overlap in time as we see the action unfold from each character’s point of view, but mostly this story starts running hard in one direction right at the start and doesn’t stop until it is done. It is a hard to put down tragedy of guns, drugs, and the damaged, dis-enfranchised individuals America cannot – or will not – look after.

Reviewed by C P Howe

The Harder They Come 
by T C Boyle
Published by Bloomsbury
ISBN 9781408859933

Book Review: The Faithful Couple, by A D Miller

Thcv_the_faithful_coupleere are great novels that feature deep relationships between men, sometimes lovers, sometimes friends. Unfortunately, this isn’t one of them.

Only the most unimaginative reader would be surprised at the way Adam Tayler (handsome, silver spoon in mouth, history at Durham) and Neil Collins (plain, shopkeeper’s son, economics at Sheffield) interact over the 280 pages, eight chapters and eighteen years of The Faithful Couple. I’m not giving anything away here – each chapter’s title is the year it covers, and they are listed on a contents page. And by calling the book The Faithful Couple, A D Miller makes sure there’s not the slightest doubt about where this story is going.

Miller does try hard to make the reader care about Adam and Neil but, apart from the odd moving moment, mostly fails. This is due in part to the risk Miller takes with the narrative structure. Good on Miller for taking that risk, but it doesn’t pay off. The choice to go with two third person narratives means subtlety is scarce, because Miller wants to make absolutely sure we know which character we are with at any given moment. After a few pages of heavily signposted thoughts and feelings, described in detail, (‘Neil lied, realising…’, or, ‘Adam wasn’t regretful…’) it all gets a bit tedious. If characters are different enough, even if they are in the third person, readers can tell whose point of view it is without being told all the time. The problem in The Faithful Couple is that Neil and Adam are simply not different enough even though, given what we know about them, they should be.

Having two protagonists (or perhaps Miller thinks that the couple act as a kind of single protagonist) means you never really know whose story it is. Neil gets the first twelve pages so I assumed it was his story, but no. Adam appears on page twelve with his own thoughts, Miller dropping in great chunks of backstory. Was he really thinking about his life in conveniently summarised paragraphs (‘Unlike Neil, he was a practised exhibitionist, especially when he had been drinking’) as he wandered around in the throes of a hangover? No, I don’t think so. There are other, much better, ways to show your readers what your characters are like.

The generation who were in their teens in the late 1980s and early 1990s will undoubtedly identify with Adam and Neil and the way the world changes around them over the following two decades, particularly the online world. But I was never really convinced about the incident at the beginning of the story that sets the whole thing off, and certainly didn’t believe the weight it carries throughout the book.

I finished the book because I had to, not because I cared about the characters (I didn’t) or because I wanted to know what happened (I worked that out early on). For an account of two lives that became linked through a shared event, with a backdrop of the growth and collapse of the financial world in the digital age, you could do worse, but if you’re after subtlety, unexpected discoveries, and depth of character, you’d better look elsewhere.

Reviewed by C P Howe

The Faithful Couple
by A D Miller
Published by Little, Brown
ISBN 9781408705919

Book Review: David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants, by Malcolm Gladwell

This book is available now.

Malcolm Gladwell has a niche. He develops theories to cv_david_and_goliathexplain stories, people or events that most of us recognise, even though we might be hazy on the details. Whether it is Paul Revere’s ride through the night to alert the Patriots about the British Army’s advances in The Tipping Point, a fireman instinctively ordering his team out of a house just before it collapsed in Blink, or the circumstances that led to The Beatles and Bill Gates becoming successful in Outliers, Gladwell has a pattern for his writing.

Firstly, his readers must have an opinion on what happened, so he usually starts with a well-known example. For the less familiar cases that follow he sets out the conventional or accepted view first and the reader, by now eagerly anticipating Gladwell’s brilliant insight, reads on. Gladwell duly delivers, and there’s a sense of gratification all round.
When The Tipping Point became a bestseller, you could hear marketing people around the world exclaiming that all they needed was to identify the mavens, connectors and salesmen, and huge increases in sales would follow. Blink provided a handy treatise to wave at your boss when he asked you to plan your work more carefully. And how many would-be prodigies started counting progress towards 10,000 hours of practice after reading Outliers?

All of Gladwell’s books are full of insights and observations but Outliers and The Tipping Point are easily the strongest, because they come with what seems to be a fully formed thesis.

But all his books suffer from the general shortcoming the genrecv_the_tipping_point faces, which is a failure to present a counter-argument, and an absence of any failures. No-one has sought out geeks who programmed as children, were born at the right time, had the computer access and other advantages Bill Gates benefitted from, and then failed to found one of the world’s richest and most powerful computer firms. And there must be some.

Outliers and The Tipping Point carry their argument so well you can accept what’s missing and read them for what they are. But when I read Blink a few years ago, it felt like Gladwell was forcing it. Or perhaps he needed to let the idea rest for a while, then come back to it, to lift the proposition up, make it stronger. I feel the same about David & Goliath.

What is Gladwell’s theory here? It’s hard to say. The people we think are weak are not actually weak? Hardly a blinding insight. But had he worked on that alone, the book might have been stronger. The characters in the title speak for themselves. David had a strength that Goliath didn’t recognise – or if he did, he couldn’t do anything about it. Goliath had weaknesses David knew about. Or did he? Even in the introductory section which describes this ancient story, Gladwell casts doubt on his own thesis.

As the book progresses through three sections, each with three chapters, the themes and ideas get muddled very quickly. Section 1 sees people or teams that turn actual disadvantages into advantages, or work harder to overcome them, or do something else…and already we have several different things going on. Section 2 posits the idea that being difficult, or finding something difficult, or being different, can drive you to succeed. No surprises there. And Section 3 tackles the idea of the limits of power by looking at people who in some way defied authority. Can you see a strong, cohesive thesis here? I didn’t think so. The common threads are tentative, at best.

That’s not to say the book is without merit. Gladwell can still spin a tale. I particularly liked the chapter about the junior girls basketball team, coached by someone who’d never played basketball, who employed a press defence all the time and started beating everyone. It was as if Wairarapa-Bush had decided to play 14 big forwards plus a runner, put the 14 into every ruck and maul, and started beating everyone because the other side could never get hold of the ball. But pairing that with a Goldilocks theory (Too big, too small = bad; In the middle = good) of class sizes?

From construction worker to ace litigator
His account of how the dyslexic David Boies went from construction worker to ace litigator is quite moving, but in the same section he includes an account of part of the US civil rights movement which, while fascinating, doesn’t seem to really line up with his theory at all. And towards the end of the book when he tries to use the Troubles in Northern Ireland, or California’s three strikes law, to examine the limits of power he comes unstuck, not because it isn’t legitimate, but because it is complex and, again, doesn’t really fit with what’s gone before.

David & Goliath undoubtedly has some interesting ideas, but it reads like a collection rather than a coherent whole. As I read the book, I imagined how you could take any one of the nine chapters, go deeper, and find many more interesting and moving insights. And then, at the end, I found that Gladwell has provided nearly twenty pages of detailed chapter notes with sources, additional reading and other material. It’s as if he knows full well the shortcomings of David & Goliath and has given his disappointed readers a pile of treasure to make up for it.

Reviewed by C P Howe

David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants
by Malcolm Gladwell
Published by Penguin
ISBN 9781846145827

Book Review: Solo, by William Boyd

I enjoy William Boyd’s writing. Restless, cv_solo_William BoydWaiting for Sunrise, . These are what you might call rollicking yarns. The protagonist, male, is at the centre of events much larger than him. He plays an important part – often not entirely intentionally – in the way things turn out. The stories span years, if not decades or lifetimes. When faced with the chance to write a James Bond story, Boyd mostly falls back on this model– rather than the more driven nature of Fleming’s Bond. Fleming’s Bond is pivotal to the plot, not incidental like Boyd’s.

Solo, as a result, is a peculiar book. It is as if Boyd can’t make his mind up. Should he write Bond his way, or Fleming’s way? His indecision is reflected on every page as well as in the overall structure, in which the eponymous solo mission doesn’t start until two-thirds of the way through the book. Faced with a story that unfolds over a shorter time frame than he is used to working with, it is as if Boyd has padded it out. Coupled with generous line spacing and margins Solo is also a shorter book than I’d first thought on picking it up.

roger-moore-james-bondBoyd, as with any contemporary Bond author, is also bound by the Bond of the silver screen. It is simply not possible to shake, at best, the image of Connery, at worst Moore (pictured), plodding around the screen, valuable minutes taken up with his bathroom regime, his contemplation of the view, his choice of meals. Boyd’s Bond is that Bond, and could never match the brutality of Dalton or the lightning-quick action of Craig.

Boyd’s Bond is forty-five the day the book starts, his story set in the late sixties. The world Boyd shows us is the world we have seen in the films of Connery and Moore, his Bond recast back as Fleming’s original, the ‘right’ age according to Fleming’s authentic backstory which tells us Bond was born in 1924. It means also that Bond should have officially retired as a ‘00’ officer, Bond aficionados knowing that the retirement age is forty-five, but soon he is sent on the mission that takes up the first two-thirds of the book .

So Bond is a veteran – but of what? Instead of showing flashbacks on Bond’s previous career – perhaps he thinks readers will know too much about this already – Boyd is at pains to show us Bond’s doubts about what he is doing, about what he wants, by having him reflect and ponder over coffee, dinner, cocktails and so on, but it is always generalised and wholly unconvincing.

Bond’s interactions with M and others are similarly shallow. The mission is barely described. We see not the slightest preparation or briefing. Things happen as if by accident. Bond casually catches flights, talk to friends and enemies alike, without any clear sense of purpose. Boyd also creates an entirely fictional African country as the setting for part of the story but, because he flies there from London and the USA, this simply heightens the sense of disbelief.

Perhaps I was expecting too much from this book. I was looking for a story that zipped along whereas Solo, at its best, plods. I wanted details that made me believe in the world I was seeing, not endless descriptions of Bond pondering his clothes and food. I wanted him to be more central to the unravelling of the plot and, while he played his part, it always felt incidental. He appears to be, if not exactly bumbling, someone who is never quite sure what is going on. He is, of course, happy to bed the Bond girls that come along. Boyd has made sure to include that ingredient of the Bond recipe.

And it was a recipe that finally killed the book for me.saladdressing Not for a cocktail, but for a salad dressing, of all things. Boyd describes the ingredients in the narrative but then inserts a footnote setting it out again in detail. The note is completely out of place, unnecessary and, for a third person narrative, self-indulgent.

All of this is a shame, because the story itself had great promise. An aid programme subverted, a African civil war, a deformed villain, a couple of unwittingly helpful bystanders, some attractive women and a clever Brit doing what the Yanks, with all their might, couldn’t. Classic Bond ingredients but, like a good cocktail or salad dressing, when the mixing-up is off, even slightly, you recognise what it is supposed to be, but that doesn’t make it satisfactory.

Reviewed by C P Howe

Written by William Boyd
Published by Harper
ISBN 9780224097482

Distributed by Random House NZ

Book review: ‘Argo’ by Anthony Mendez with Matt Baglio

cv_argoThis book is in bookstores now.

It is true that six Americans, employed at the US Embassy in Iran, were ‘exfiltrated’ by the CIA in 1981. It is true that this happened at the same time as 52 other Americans were being held hostage in the Embassy. And it is true that Anthony Mendez, a CIA employee, led the exfiltration mission. Thirty years after the fact, Ben Affleck and Anthony Mendez have presented differing versions of these truths.

The story of how the six Americans were rescued has been told before, most notably in a 1981 TV movie called ‘Escape from Iran: The Canadian Caper,’ but because Mendez’ role in the operation was classified until 1997 he was not, until recently, permitted to tell it himself. Readers of the book he has written with Baglio may wish it had stayed that way.

Mendez and Baglio have taken a bizarre approach to the narrative. It is written in the first person, from Mendez’ point of view, yet Mendez didn’t witness directly the events that occur in much of the book, either in Iran or the USA. Despite this, the narrative is presented as if Mendez were present when they happened.

This is particularly odd in the sections of the book that deal with events in Iran in the early stages of the crisis, including detailed and mundane dialogue about what the hostages had for dinner, what they were wearing, and the arguments they had. It seems Mendez and Baglio believe that by showing us chunks of the story in this way, they can make it more convincing, but what this clumsy technique actually does is make the reader question its veracity.

We know from the acknowledgements in the book that Baglio interviewed many of the people involved, presumably a considerable time after the crisis. The best description, then, of what is going on is that it is a ‘reconstruction,’ a retelling of events not witnessed by either Baglio or Mendez. Although presented as a truthful account of what happened, it must be a semi-fictional version of the truth; half of it imagined and pieced together third-hand by Mendez and Baglio; the other half Mendez’ recollection of the events he was directly involved in. Even then, Mendez is not telling the story himself; Baglio is telling it on his behalf.

Do we really believe that the people who lived through this crisis would tell the whole truth to a journalist about how they felt and behaved when they thought they would die, even if they could remember, even if they hadn’t blocked out and tried to forget that terrifying experience? Of course not.

This puts an interesting perspective on Affleck’s movie. If Mendez’ and Baglio’s book includes details neither men observed, told by a retired spy and a journalist, how confident can we be that is it any more truthful than Affleck’s version? It presumably is more accurate, but it is also less coherent, less convincing, and a much less well told story than the movie.

In Mendez’ ‘truthful’ version of Argo there is no famous Hollywood producer, no script read-through in costume, no witty dialogue about the movie industry, no emotional reconciliation with an estranged wife and daughter (Mendez and his wife are not separated, so there can’t be,) no solitary CIA agent flying to the rescue, no last minute approval by the President, and certainly no Iranian police chasing the plane down the tarmac. Instead there is page after page of CIA logistics and inconsistent explanations of acronyms, a good deal of Mendez’ previous work and success, many colleagues who do lots of the legwork, and plenty of dull, careful preparation.

I found it very difficult to wade through Mendez’ and Baglio’s book. In contrast, I willingly saw Affleck’s movie twice, the first time at the Arclight cinema in the heart of Hollywood, the second time in Wellywood with my family. Watching a film about Hollywood, in Hollywood, surrounded by Hollywood people was one of the most entertaining experiences I’ve had at the movies. Not a single in-joke was missed by that audience. Chris Terrio and Ben Affleck have done an outstanding job of turning this story into a compelling three act experience. Most people who see the film will already know what happens in the end, and to successfully create edge-of-your seat tension in such circumstances is a great achievement.

In stark contrast Mendez and Baglio don’t get to the third act – the actual escape from Iran – until the final few pages of their book. Even a ‘true’ story needs to be told with structure, with dramatic tension and the right amount of detail. Mendez might have done better enlisting someone who understands that to tell his version.

Knowing what to leave out and what to leave in, knowing when to go into detail and when to move on, and rewarding the reader with payoffs and emotional engagement are the bread and butter of Hollywood. Perhaps it is not so surprising, then, that the Hollywood professionals did a better job of telling this story – albeit with a significant number of embellishments – than Mendez and Baglio. I have no doubt that with the addition of some professional story-telling expertise the ‘true’ version of Argo could have been told, if not quite as compellingly as Affleck’s movie, so much better than Mendez and Baglio’s effort.

Postscript: Affleck won best director for Argo at the 2013 BAFTA awards, and Argo picked up the award for best film. In his acceptance speech, Affleck – who won an Oscar with Matt Damon for his script for ‘Good Will Hunting’ – said Chris Terrio’s script for Argo was the best he’d ever seen.

Reviewed by C P Howe

Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off The Most Audacious Rescue in History
by Anthony Mendez with Matt Baglio
Published by Penguin Books
ISBN Penguin Books

Screenplay by Chris Terrio; Directed by Ben Affleck; Produced by George Clooney

Book review: The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco

This book is in bookstores now.

Take the fragmented and volatile nature of 19th century European history, mix in a grand cast of real people, show how well read you are by referring to a wide range of real and fictional writing, and invent a thoroughly dislikeable anti-hero to tie it all together. The result is Umberto Eco’s sixth novel, The Prague Cemetery, a book full of intrigue, deception and betrayal, which goes back to the familiar ground of Foucault’s Pendulum and The Name of the Rose.

Eco’s academic credentials include philosophy, semiotics, literary criticism and media and communications. Fifty years ago he first published his ideas on ‘open’ and ‘closed’ texts, and in his novels it seems he has pushed these ideas through into practice. The Prague Cemetery certainly requires the reader to engage, and engage deeply, questioning what is being reported on the page, and by whom. To add to the complexity, readers also need to remember that this is a translation from Italian into English. That such a complex and dynamic piece of writing should retain its integrity after such a process is remarkable.

It is also clear that Eco really meant what he said in an interview with the Guardian in 2011; ‘People are tired of simple things; they want to be challenged.’ Not only does The Prague Cemetery require nothing short of your full attention, moving as it does between a narrator – we are supposed to think this is Eco himself, perhaps – the journal entries of Simone Simonini, and notes made by Simonini’s alter ego, Abbe Dalla Piccola. It also assumes the reader has a very high level of trust in the narrator, whether it is Eco, Simonini, or Dalla Piccola, to recount in great detail the complex shifts in power in 19th century European politics. Eco knows it is unlikely many readers will be as well read on this subject as he is, and spares us no detail.

But he is not just doing this to show off. Simonini is a forger, used by more than one government, or would be government, to supply ‘genuine’ documents to the other side. Who is on the other side, and who is on his side, it is hard to say. Simonini is an unreliable narrator, and it is mostly his account of his life, written nearly thirty years after the events themselves, that we are reading. We cannot be sure that anything he tells us is true. At best it is just a version – his version – of the truth. Add in the brief notes by Dalla Piccola and the interjections by the narrator and we see the world as Eco wants us to see it – complex, confusing and where we can’t know everyone’s true intentions and motivations. Just like real life.

Eco has included monochrome images of supposed engravings of the events Simonini writes about, showing us that Simonini is in fact writing a journal for publication. He is, we are supposed to believe, finally writing down the truth about his colourful life, and the role he played in producing The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an account of a meeting of Jewish elders in a cemetery in Prague. The Protocols exist, and are widely held to be a hoax. That did not stop them being used by the Russians and the Nazis, and even today there are claims that they are genuine.

Eco threads layer upon layer of fiction, fact, history and humour throughout this novel. Those who are not experts in this period of European history may find the detail distracting or annoying. I’d recommend setting aside your concerns; don’t try and remember all the characters and who they are aligned with. Never heard of the Two Kingdoms of Sicily? Don’t worry about it.

Not sure who Garibaldi was? Never mind. Unclear about the sequence of events with the Prussians, Bonaparte and the French Revolution? Let it go. No-one really knows all the details. Simonini certainly doesn’t, and you shouldn’t try. There are plenty of other books you can read if you’re interested.

Instead, read The Prague Cemetery for what it is: a rollicking tale of a thoroughly unlikeable, anti-Semitic, food-obsessed murderer, at the heart of deception after deception that shaped the course of European history at the time and – in the case of the forgery that sits at the centre of the book, the Protocols – decades to come. For Europeans, especially continental Europeans, the events in this book were not that long ago. They are, still, fresh in the memory. France and Italy are proud republics with volatile political environments. In that sense, they are still very much the countries described in The Prague Cemetery. And this is a serious business; the Protocols were used by the Nazis, in part, to justify the Holocaust.

The Prague Cemetery won’t be to everyone’s taste. Simonini is a nasty piece of work, but unlike most anti-heroes it’s hard to ever feel any sympathy or empathy for him. The historical details can be exhausting. And while we know its Simonini, not Eco, being anti-Semitic, the thoughts Eco puts in Simonini’s head, and the words he puts in his mouth, are disturbing.

If you want a story about conspiracies, European history and deception where you know who the villain is because he’s an creepy looking albino priest who tortures himself, where the world is threatened and saved at the last minute, and where the hero is an American and gets the girl, Dan Brown’s the author for you. For everyone else, there’s Umberto Eco.

Reviewed by C P Howe

The Prague Cemetery
by Umberto Eco, translated by Richard Dixon
Published by Vintage Books
ISBN 9780099555971

Book review: ‘The Big Music: selected papers’ by Kirsty Gunn

This book is in bookstores now.

The Big Music: selected papers is UK-based New Zealander Kirsty Gunn’s latest novel. In her introduction she tells us that the book is a selection from some ‘papers that were presented to me,’ and that she has ‘arranged’ them. The papers as they appear in the novel are written as a third person narrative. So they must have been written by someone trying to tell a story. But who?

There are also copious footnotes and we are, it appears, supposed to believe that it is Gunn who has written them, as well as compiling the 100 pages of appendices. But, like Ian McEwan’s early inclusion of exclamation marks to signal that the narrative in Atonement was not his, but his fictional author Briony’s, the footnotes in The Big Music include many uses of ‘etc.’ – surely something Gunn would not do in her own writing – and it is soon very clear that what we have in front of us is an elaborate fictional construction.

It takes great courage and confidence to attempt such an approach, and create not one but two fictional writers – one who has written the ‘papers,’ and a fictional Gunn who has arranged them, written the footnotes and compiled the appendices – with such a consistent and convincing representation of their respective flaws. Kirsty Gunn clearly has both in spades.

But that’s not all. The ordering of the ‘papers’ follows the structure of piobaireachd (pronouned pee-broh, a specialised form of bagpipe music in four movements, akin to a symphony) because that’s what Gunn – the fictional Gunn – believes the author of the ‘papers’ was aiming for. And throughout, the footnotes tell you exactly what is going on. At times during my reading of the book I thought this was overdone, but I should have trusted her; it is one of the many layers that emerge and is, like everything in fiction, there for a good reason. Continue reading