If you only read one novel this year which combines the atrocities of the Burma railroad, a love story, the pathlessness of heroes, and the pall rather than glory which war cast over Australia then make it this one (also this might be the only one).

Richard Flanagan – Narrow Road to the Deep North (2013)

This is the first Richard Flanagan book I’ve read and so I’m not sure whether it’s typical of his novels. I first heard of Flanagan when he donated the $40,000 prime ministers literary prize to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation. It was reported at the time as part of a political statement though it seems Flanagan is a big supporter of the foundation and probably would have made the donation irrespective. That said it was an excellent statement. The Australian government at the time were bigots pretending to make tough decisions and have since been replaced with cowards pretending to make rational

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Flanagan accepting the Prime Ministers Literary prize from Prime Minister, Tony Abbot. Image: ABC

decisions. In a country where many public figures are scared of sticking their necks out this seemed like a bombastic move and I, in turn, assumed Flanagan’s writing would perhaps be similarly provocative.

Taken simply The Narrow Road to the Deep North is not an antagonistic book. It would even be possible to skim through it and interpret it as straight award bait. The novel won the Man Booker Prize in 2014. Based on the incident of the returned prize money I wasn’t sure how Flanagan would approach the horrors suffered by Australian and Malay POWs at the hands of the Japanese as they were used as slave labour in the impossibly (and ultimately futile task) of constructing a railway through dense Jungle between Thailand to Burma

Flanagan’s novel uses more scope and perspective than past explorations of the Burma railroad

The tales of the suffering of Australian POWs has been told many times before in Australia print and, on the screen, and is often situated in such a way that it ties into the idea of the Anzac spirit and formation of national identity.

Flanagan doesn’t simply write tale of survival and the human spirit within the suffering and atrocity. He manages, convincingly, to also portray the faults and flawed humanity of the participants on both sides and adeptly jumps back and forth in time to deftly compile full portraits of his key players.

Flanagan uses extensive research and an amazingly convincing multiple character perspective, exemplified particularly in the shift, late in the book, to the Japanese and Malay soldiers. As if designed to be read on different levels there is a tale of lost love woven through the story and I think this could be the main focus for the casual reader. I initially clung onto it as the central narrative and theme of the book. It was only later, long after reading the book that I began to appreciate how Flanagan resists capitalising on this and other stories in the novel.

There are no conclusive tales of mateship, enduring love or good versus evil. Instead the book, apparently based on the experiences of his father, provides in its margins a frank look at suffering, the faults that can make up a hero and the shadow of lives and subsequent generations lived in the wake of war.

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All the Light we cannot See (2014)

Anthony Doerr

The book was the runner-up to Phil Klay’s Redeployment in the 2014 National Book Awards. Redeployment was one of the best books I read last year. All the Light We Cannot See, Doerr’s second novel is also on that list. As much as I love Redeployment I would hate to have to declare which of the two is a better book.

I was probably interested in this book because it had won the Pulitzer. Looking back, I’m surprised I read it as the plot doesn’t sound like something that would necessarily appeal to me. Doerr ties together the WWII experiences of a French girl and a German boy and their interested in architecture and radio technology and experiences in occupied France and the Hitler youth. The novel shoes the bystanders in each country and describes the seaside French city as the blind protagonist learns to navigate it. There is the moral confusion of the German boy in the Hitler Youth and his complicit guilt as his technological expertise spares him the cruel punishment meted out to his classmates. In some ways, the story shouldn’t work and Doerr does almost seem to come dangerously close to overusing central set pieces but never seems too weighed down by his various themes.

Within storylines that should seem obvious at times and themes which should jar Doerr builds incredibly subtle characters and relationships just as he also slowly creates and establishes the set pieces, city and world of the 1940’s French city. The most complimentary thing I can say is that Doerr’s book and the world within it is almost painfully immersive and as, such, the climax, is as hard to bear not just for the fate of the characters but also the inevitable destruction of the city Doerr has created and the architecture, buildings and secret spots I came to know within it.

Green Hills of Africa (1935)

Ernest Hemingway

It’s difficult, in 2017, to stomach a book about the simple pleasures of big game hunting in Africa written from an only vaguely self-aware post-colonial perspective. Yet that is essentially what this book is. The up’s and downs of one of the Hemingway’s big game trophy hunts in Africa in the early 1930’s. This is considered Hemingway’s second non-fiction book, the first being Death in the Afternoon which is about bullfighting. I haven’t read Death in the Afternoon. I wouldn’t rush to read it above the many other books stacking up on my shelf. I didn’t mind the descriptions of bull fighting in The Sun Also Rises as they added an interesting backdrop to the character drama. But that was a work of fiction whereby the plot necessitated that many other acts of writing had to be committed other than just a dissection of the art and skill Hemingway found in the sport of fighting bulls.

This then forms part of the problem with this novel. It is non-fiction. The writing is plain. Even for Hemingway. Yet the book is also very similar to his fiction work. Just as The Sun also Rises and A Farewell to Arms felt like fictionalised truth this novel feels like reverse situation and another potential novel that has not been allowed to float off into the freedom of fiction and is instead steadfastly moored in real life events and very much based upon description and dissection of stalking, killing and skinning rhinos, kudu, lions and sable.

I was willing to find some sort of macabre appeal in the content or grant some sort of romantic conceit based upon Hemingway’s passion for and connection to hunting. It’s hard though when he again and again describes the crack of bullets against various bones and seems almost removed from the actual hunting and still, as in his fiction, worried more about his interactions with his fellow hunters. As a result, the slaughter of various animals very often seems both joyless and pointless.

The asides are the real value of this book. Hemingway’s views on literature and fellow modernist authors are particularly interesting including his various encounters with James Joyce. Similarly, Hemingway’s struggles with envy, jealousy and his views of his fellow hunters and guides provide a sort of subplot and, ultimately, Hemingway does what Hemingway does best by providing, in the conclusion to the book, a simple little poetic twist doesn’t necessarily redeem the writing but which nonetheless hints at what this book could have been had it been more focused upon acting as a work of fiction. And perhaps this forms part of the books value also. A two-fold insight into who Hemingway was or at least how he sought to portray himself and also in how his writing operated and the indecision and doubt that paradoxically seemed to operate side by side with bravado and ultra-confidence.

This 1990 edition has a throwaway cover but does include some nice woodcutting style illustrations throughout. Grafton seemed to have done the complete Hemingway in this style with similar covers but of the two other Grafton editions I have only Green Hills of Africa has illustrations.

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I Am Alive and You Are Dead: A Journey into the Mind of Philip K. Dick (1993)

Emmanuel Carrère

4/1/2017

One of my guilty pleasures is that I love biographies. It’s a guilty pleasure because so many biographies are either bad, boring or unnecessary. But I try over and over. It began when I read Jackie Chan’s biography at a young age. Admittedly Jackie Chan’s story is reasonably interesting and, by comparison, a lot of other biographies are boring even, or despite, interesting subject matter. But the unexpected highs and lows of Chan’s story started something for me. And like any gambler who wins on their first try I’ve continued to search for the same reward. Yet it’s often difficult to gauge what will and what won’t be a good biography. Those who produced the most interesting work may have had dull lives.

Sure, though Phillip K Dick had an uninteresting life? Considering his fiction and Its breadth and influence. But really Dick’s life was remarkably mundane and this could easily have been a bad biography. He married several times, did very few drugs in general but lots of amphetamine in particular. Didn’t really travel or interact with other authors. He wrote, a lot, though arguably only some of it was great and much of his output, like his life, was merely mundane.

Nonetheless this is perhaps the best biography I have ever read and, I’d wager, will ever read. Carrère tackles the subject with a true passion and interest as well as the innovation of providing his own dramatization of events so that the book resembles a work of historical fiction. The book is built heavily upon facts and events but embellishes otherwise undocumented events in Dick’s with some conceit to fiction. Carrère delves deep and even in the mundane sections is innovative and relates Dick’s work and day to day existence to the world events and the rise and fall of the sixties counter-culture such that this book is about far more than merely the life of a prolific writer. The book is about philosophy, modern history, the birth and development of early modern science fiction, the nature and demands of creation, the counter-culture and its expectations and limitations as well as mental illness and the rewards and pitfalls of recognition.

It’s a sad book. Carrère tells the tragic life of a man who’s work touched, and continues to touch millions of people through the continual reprints of his novels and TV and movie adaptations. The book is not afraid to show the depths to which Dick fell and that he died lonely and confused and paranoid. Convinced to the end that he was trapped in just the kind of situation that he had written so much about. And Carrère in this work is not just providing us with the life of Dick, a genius. He is also asking what happened. At which point did the fiction consume and derail the writer and become his reality. Could he have been saved? Should he have been saved? Can he really be considered a hero or a genius when he was also seemingly so doomed and powerless? The book cannot provide answers to any of these questions. Nonetheless it does provide that perfect and poignant life and times story I’ve valued so much ever since my first taste.

Portnoy’s Complaint (1969)

Phillip Roth

1/1/2017

This is the first and so far, only Phillip Roth book I’ve read. Controversial at the time of publication (1969) for its depiction of masturbation, bodily fluids and obscenity. It’s relatively tame by modern standards though some would argue otherwise (including this Guardian article). The writing is solid, especially for a first novel, but I found it from a modern perspective bereft of controversy and so the book serves more as a well-done writing exercise in the (now) well known trope of Jewish neurosis. The book is narrated as one long monologue through the central character of Portnoy. While reading, I assumed this novel was a small side journey from Roth’s more serious works in the same way that Gore Vidal wrote Myra Breckinridge and Mailer wrote Barbary Shore. Although looking at the publication dates it seems as if Barbary Shore was a similarly early work of Mailer’s and so perhaps Gore Vidal was the only one making side-journeys while the other two were evolving as writers in these their earlier, lighter books. Or perhaps I’m completely wrong in my idea of Roth and all his writing is similar to this, but that’s a realization for another day.