The Devil’s Disciple by Shiro Hamao

Two very entertaining thriller/mysteries by an author you’ve probably never heard of translated here by J. Keith Vincent.

Both stories, “The Devil’s Disciple” and the novella length “Did He Kill Them” are really psychological studies as much as noir detective thrillers. In both, the “killer” has already been caught so there’s not that much of investigating to be done.  However, in each the confession is highly suspect. There is much more going on than first meets the eye.

They are each interesting as mystery/thrillers and for the portrait they present of 1930’s Japan when they were written. They are not a happy, fantasy, Japan; there is murder in both stories so we are entering dark territory not suitable for tourists, but the look inside the Japanese justice system of the day and the glimpse of Japanese society’s more sensationalist side made for interesting reading.

I enjoyed both stories, in fact I hope to find more of Shiro Hamao’s 17 novellas and three novels translated into English.

Of Flesh and Fur by Duncan Barlow

file_001-1It’s not easy to find these books.  Small, very small, independent press books each of them clearly a labor of love at every step of the way.

I found The Cupboard Press at a writer’s and writing conference in Los Angeles last year, two young people sitting at a table in the vast exhibition hall.  I liked their little books, each small enough to fit into the palm of my hand, just about, the length of a novella whether it really is a novella or a small collection of stories or a slightly experimental long form poem.

My subscription gets me four books a year, one per quarter.  Duncan Barlow’s novella Of Flesh and Fur is the third one I’ve received.

I liked it quite a bit.

What happens after a pack of coyotes has been spotted near a Southern California suburb? A man, recently divorced decides he wants to have a child.  There are women who want his sperm, but none who want him to be involved with the resulting baby.  He turns to cloning. Soon he has a baby boy.

Though he loves his son, clones frequently do not turn out the way their “parents” had hoped for.  This child is fine for a while, kind of wonderful really, until the coyotes appear. Then the boy begins incessantly crying. Day and night, non-stop. Finally his “father” is forced to take drastic action.

I thought it was terrific.  An entertaining story that had me thinking.

I look forward to the arrival of the next edition.

You can order a copy of Of Flesh and Fur or subscribe here.


The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan and The Man Who Would Be King by Rudyard Kipling

file_000-2It’s just happenstance.  Pure random phenomena that led me to read Karan Mahajan’s highly praised novel The Association of Small Bombs right after reading Rudyard Kipling’s classic novella The Man Who Would Be King.  I didn’t mean to do it.  I didn’t even know Mr. Mahajan’s novel took place in India.

I did know about Rudyard Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King from the very entertaining John Huston film starring Sean Connery and Michael Caine.  You cannot go wrong with Sean Connery and Michael Caine, both in the same movie.  I haven’t seen it since its first run back when I was a wee lad, but I have always remembered its story.

Two men, low ranked ne’er-do-wells in British India, set out into the mountains to take over a kingdom or start one of their own.  They pull it off, too.  Set themselves up as rulers in the wilds of Afghanistan where they are worshipped as gods in spite of their best intentions.  It all comes crashing down in the end, of course.  They have over reached and must be put back in their places.

It’s a wonderful tale, a true boy’s adventure in the old style. But it comes with all the baggage such tales of the Raj came with, all the white man’s burden sort of stuff in full bloom.

While it’s not exactly easy to defend Kipling these days, he does get the character of the everyday soldier, the “Tommy in the Trenches” right like no one else has. He knows what they were like and he knows how the talked. For example, there’s this little bit of throw-away description where the narrator describes the music the natives are playing before an attack begins “The drum were drumming and the horns were horning” that I intend to work into conversation as often as I can.

I bought Kafile_001ran Mahajan’s novel based on the intriguing title and its National Book Award nomination.  I had no idea it was set in contemporary India. To be honest, it never occured to me that a book getting America’s National Book Award could be thoroughly non-American.  Though the two share a similar geography Mahajan’s novel couldn’t be farther from Kipling’s. At first glance anyway.

Mr. Mahajan’s story concerns the people involved in a minor act of terrorism, a bomb explosion at a Delhi marketplace that kills only a few people.  In the larger scope of events, it won’t be remembered for long, not when attacks with much higher body counts occur so frequently.  The book addresses this issue, among many others–what is it like to lose someone in a terrible tragedy that’s so small most people forget it happened in less than a year’s time?

The narrative moves from character to character over the course of many years as we follow the story of one survivor, the parents of two victims and a handful of would be terrorists.  None of them are very important people, though they might like to see themselves that way.  It’s a fascinating book, one that will touch and disturb many readers.

What does it have to do with Kipling beyond being about South Asia?

Many people have written about the connection between the current situation in India and Pakistan as a long-term consequence of British colonization, so there’s that.  Someone who knows more about this subject than I do could better explain this connection. I do see a link between Kipling’ heroes (anti-heroes) and the terrorists in Mr. Mahajan’s novel.  Both are convinced that they can bring about their larger goals successfully, both are unconcerned with whether or not they are right or whether they may bring harm to others.  In the end, they all come to a bad end brought about at least in part by their own hubris.

What makes Mr. Mahajan’s story the stronger work is the pathos he brings to his characters. As much as I enjoyed The Man Who Would Be King it never really leaves the realm of boy’s adventure, literary as it may be. The Association of Small Bombs has a more expansive heart.  While we never really sympathize with the bombers, not in the way we do with the survivors and the families of the victims, we do come to see them as part of a larger problem. I can bring this down to numbers. Mr. Kipling really has only two characters in The Man Who Would Be King.  Two full characters and a large number of bit players. Ms. Mahajan has seven full characters and an equal number of supporting players.  I’d argue that this is because Kipling is not as interested in understanding  the “other side” as Mahajan is.

On the other hand, if I were teaching a course on literature about South Asia, while I would certainly include something by Rudyard Kipling, probably Kim, I’m not sure I would include Karan Mahajan.  He would be in the running, but I don’t know if He would make the final syllabus.


Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino

Long into the night Marco Polo sits in Kublai Kahn’s palace telling him about all the cities he has visited, cities the Kahn will never get the chance to see.

This is the premise for Italo Calvino’s wonderful novella Invisible Cities translated from the Italian by William Weaver.

Each of the short chapters describes one city.  After a few chapters, the dialogue between Marco Polo and Kublia Kahn intterupts for a page or two.

It shouldn’t work so well.  It ought to become tiresome after a while.  It certainly shouldn’t begin to be something of a page-turner.  But it did, it didn’t and it was.

I loved it.

I kind of want to read it again right now though I just finished reading it.

I was reminded of Alan Lightman’s wonderful book Einstein’s Dreams which is just a series of possible ways time might work in other realities.  Turns out Mr. Lightman’s book is inspired by Invisible Cities, at least structurally.

I enjoyed both the descriptions of the cities and the scenes of dialogue in Invisible Cities.  I found the cities to be wonderful, worthy of Kublia Kahn’s stately pleasure dome.  While I was reading an imagined encyclopedia, I found I always wanted more.  Each one struck my fancy one way or another.  The dialogue worked in creating two characters, giving them a life outside of the encyclopedia while managing to comment on the cities described.

There were many bits that I loved, like this one:

The dreamed-of city contained him as a young man; he arrives at Isadora in his old age.  In the square there is the wall where the old me sit and watch the young go by; he is seated in a row with them. Desires are already memories.

There is so much about language in Invisible Cities that I began to wonder if I should read the book as theory.  Is. Mr. Calvino giving us his theory of aesthetics in his descriptions of these imagined cities?  Is he presenting a philosophy? He may very well be doing just that, but the reader need not worry.  There is plenty on the surface to enjoy in Invisible Cities without digging for meaning.

Invisible Cities comes with my highest recommendation.

The Square by Marguerite Duras

All Paris parks are the Luxembourg Gardens as far as I’m concerned.

C.J. and I arrived early for the matinee.  (Everything David Sedaris says about going to the movies in Paris is true.) Time to kill and no money to spend, the Luxembourg Gardens just up the street. Thirty minutes later and both of us are tempted to skip the movie in exchange for an afternoon in chairs in the Luxembourg Gardens, as if Paris wasn’t wonderful enough to begin with.  Now, whenever the words “Paris” and “park” are mentioned together, I think of the Luxembourg Gardens.  Just can’t help it.

Marguerite Duras novella, The Square, takes place in an un-named Paris park.  It’s probably one of the many small parks we found in every part of the city we walked through from Place d’Italie to St. Denis.  But it can be the Luxembourg Gardens if I choose.

In The Square a young woman and  an older man share a bench in the park one afternoon.  A maid for a wealthy family, she watches the child she is in charge of and dreams of the marriage she hopes Saturday evenings at the local dance hall will someday lead to. A travelling salesman,  he has never been more than an observer, immersed in his newspapers and watching the people who pass by.  He  does not make enough money to settle down or support a wife.

The two discuss their lives, share the views, in what should produce an adolescent piece of writing full of forced attempts at the profound.  Instead, I found two lonely people sharing an afternoon.  People I believed in and who had something to say about life.

See what I mean.

Here’s the young woman talking about happiness:

“I don’t know if it is that people are not good at happiness or if they don’t understand what it is. Perhaps they don’t really know what it is they want or how to make use of it when they have it. They may even get tired of trying to keep it.  I really don’t know. What I do know is that the word exists and that it was not invented for nothing.  And just because I know that women, even those who appear to be happy, often start wondering towards evening why they are leading the lives they do, I am not going to start wondering if the word is meaningless. That is all I can say on the subject.”

I hope the stilted nature of this dialogue is the result of mediocre translation, not of mediocre writing.  If the dialogue in the original sounds stilted, is a translator honor bound to preserve this quality?

A Simple Heart by Gustave Flaubert

simple heartI was surprised by how this book touched me.

Translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell, Gustave Flaubert’s A Simple Heart  tells the story of Félicité , a lifelong servant, and her search for someone to love.

Félicité lives a very limited life, only rarely leaving the home of Madame Aubain her employer for over fifty years.  In her youth, Félicité has one great love who abandons her to marry into enough money to keep him out of military service.  She then enters service herself, taking a position with Madame Aubain, to whom she remains devoted for so long.  She helps to raise Madame Aubain’s daughter whom she loves only to be abandoned again when the girl leaves for boarding school.  She then begins meeting with her young nephew who leaves her to become a sailor as soon as he is old enough to enlist.  Finally, through a strange set of circumstances, Félicité is given a parrot, Loulou.  She devotes her affections to the bird who returns them with complete devotion.

Along the way, she becomes a devout catholic, though she has only a limited understanding of church doctrine.  What she really wants is someone to love.  Since she has had  few people to love in her life, she focuses on Loulou and on God.

That’s a lot to put into a 62 page novella. Melville House is generous with their use of white space here as they have been in all The Art of the Novella series.  (I think the amount of white space between the lines has increased in general over the last 15 to 20 years anyway.)  But in this short space, Flaubert creates a life, not as full a life as most of us would want granted, but Félicité has stayed with me much longer than I expected.  She is a character I will keep with me for a long time.  That’s a lot to say for someone who is completely fictitious.

I can’t say that her life is particularly tragic; there is no great drama in A Simple Heart.  I suppose what moves me about her story is that she does find people to love, and she is loved back, but she out lives her love every time.  That’s what got to me.

There’s much more that I could say about A Simple Heart. This is only the second time I have read Flaubert, Madame Bovary back in graduate school was the first.  I prefer A Simple Heart not because it’s the better book, it’s been too long since I read Madame Bovary for me to say, but because it touched me in a way Madame Bovary did not.

But, in any case, I should read more Flaubert.

And I really liked the parrot.

The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy

I death of ivan ilychsee now that I was wrong about Leo Tolstoy lacking a sense of humor.  At Amatuer Reader’s suggestion I took another look at the opening chapter of The Death of Ivan Ilych–it’s pretty funny.  Funny in the same, slightly off-kilter, dark way that Gogol and Dostoevsky are funny.

The Death of Ivan Ilych opens with the departed character’s friends arriving to provide comfort to his widow.  She is more concerned with her own situation, understandably.  What will become of her? How much Ivan Ilych suffered in his final days and hours and how his suffering upset her.  It was all very hard on her.  Ivan Ilych’s friends are sorry that he died, but not as sorry as they are relieved that it happened to someone else instead of them.  And who will they get to replace him at the whist table.

After the first chapter the novella leaps backwards in time to give us the life and death of Ivan Ilych, an ordinary man who did fairly well in the world but not well enough to leave much of a mark.  The final half of the novella tells the story of his illness and death in a way that kept reminding me of Franz Kafka’s story “The Metamorphosis”  which is about a man who wakes up one day to discover he has become a giant insect.

Ivan Ilych’s experience of illness is quite like Gregor Samson’s transformation.  The illness arrives suddenly and without explanation.  Neither his doctor’s nor his family are able to help him or comfort him or even really understand what he’s going through.  No treatments provide relief; there is no cure. As his illness progresses, Ivan Ilych becomes detached from the world, isolated much like Gregor Samson did.  In the end, both are completely alone whether they are among people or not.  In the end, Ivan Ilych loses the ability to speak and becomes isolated inside his body, aware of what is going on around him but unable to comment just like Gregor Samson.

It’s been a while since I read Kafka, so I’m relying on long-term memory here, but I think the two would make a very interesting pair for a college seminar, maybe a high school AP English class.  More adventurous book clubs could do the two together as both are quite short.  My own book club would never have gone for it since both are quite sad, too.

Not really sad.  Reading each didn’t make me sad so much as they made me thoughtful, contemplative perhaps.  I can’t recall exactly how I felt about the end of “The Metamorphosis”but The Death of Ivan Ilych left me feeling a quiet satisfaction.  In the end Ivan Ilych loses his fear of death.  While he doesn’t exactly welcome its arrival, he’s undisturbed by it in a way that I found kind of comforting.  Tolstoy even gives him a moment of joy as he sees the final light.

The Death of Ivan Ilych was an excellent read; it now on my retirement re-reads shelf.  I’m sure I’ve got a copy of Kafka around somewhere, too.