Friday 22 July 2016

Another place called Winter

This was one of two books that my sister Claire gave me for Christmas and it has been my breakfast book for a while, then has been my lunchtime book at work this week because I have been in the cage. The title reminded me of 'The Left Hand of Darkness' where the country is also called Winter. Patrick Gale came to the Manchester Literature Festival back in 2012 and he also made (to me) a very memorable appearance a couple of years ago on an alumni version of University Challenge. I read 'Note From an Exhibition' back in 2010 when we were moving up to Manchester, and think I have enjoyed 'A Place Called Winter' just as much. 

I was very pleased to discover in reaching the end that the story of Harry is a fictionalisation of events in his own family. Well, Patrick explains, sort of fictional. His great-grandfather Harry really did get married, have financial difficulties and then go to Canada. So much is true, but he was unable to get to the bottom of why Harry really went, and why the family were reluctant for him to return, and so he creates a tale of hidden and illegal passions that are covered up to save the family from shame. So this is a tale very much in the vein of 'My Ántonia', of people who work indescribably hard to forge a life in a new, untamed place, and at the same time a love story of two people who form a bond in the unlikeliest of situations.

I just went with the flow of the story so I've just a couple of quotes to tempt you. I think the life in Canada is well researched and everything about the way it is written feels very authentic:

"Moose Jaw was far more developed than its age had led Harry to expect. It already boasted some large brick buildings - a school, a hospital, some hotels and a post office - and the station where they arrived would not have disgraced a small city back home. The buildings' size and confidence only emphasised the raw, provisional nature of their surroundings, however: wooden shops-fronts, more like fairground stalls than real buildings, streets of churned mud and worse, and everywhere vacant building plots carefully outlined with posts and wires but boasting as yet nothing but spring weeds. There was a certain bustle, the tinny sound of a pianola from inside the pub, but there seemed to be no more women in evidence than had been on the train or boat. Harry had not appreciated until now how much hats and dresses adorned a scene." (p.134)

And later, when he finally settles in his own place. I liked the idea of both familiarity and distance in the community; everyone knew everyone, even knew their business, but often kept to themselves and came only infrequently into contact. Here Harry has a housewarming party:

"Aside from his wedding reception, which arguably had been Mrs Well's party and not his, it was the first party he had ever thrown. People came, which surprised him, and they asked lots of impertinent questions, which didn't. They enjoyed entering rooms and peering out of windows they would never enter or peer out of again. They left behind a quantity of cheeses, pickles and jams and even a side of bacon.
'There,' Petra said, when they had waved off the last of them. 'Now they know you're just like them, with no more mystery to you than anyone else, and you'll be left alone.'
The house possessed no furniture yet except two hard chairs, a table and a camp bed, but the array of jams and pickles on the shelf and the bacon hanging from a hook made it look lived in." (p.240)

Then the war comes crashing into their settled lives ... 'heart-wrenching' says the review on the cover, so beware.

Sunday 17 July 2016

My Ántonia

My dad pressed 'My Ántonia' by Willa Cather on me when I visited a couple of weeks ago, it having been pressed on him in turn by my  second-cousin Molly when they visited the US last month to scatter my uncle Den's ashes in the Smokey Mountains.

It is one of those books in which very little happens. I mean life happens, but just an ordinary one. Well, I mean an ordinary life for early 20th century Nebraska, but one which seems extraordinary as a reader in early 21st century Britain. It is narrated by Jim Burden, an orphaned boy who is sent to live with his grandparents on a farm, and the family's longstanding relationship with their recently arrived Bohemian neighbours, the Shimerdas, and most particularly with their daughter Ántonia. The story tracks the growing up of this young boy and the intense friendship that develops between the two of them, waxing and waning over the passing years but remaining equally significant to both. While this is essentially a book about Ántonia, it is also one about the community they live in, and the beauty of the place itself. 

"When spring came, after that hard winter, one could not get enough of the nimble air. Every morning I wakened with a fresh consciousness that winter was over. There were none of the signs of spring for which I used to watch in Virginia, no budding woods or blooming gardens. There was only  - spring itself; the throb of it, the light restlessness, the vital essence of it everywhere: in the sky, in the swift clouds, in the pale sunshine, and in the warm high wind - rising suddenly, sinking suddenly, impulsive and playful like a big puppy that pawed you and then lay down to be petted. If I had been tossed down blindfolded on that red prairie, I should have known that it was spring." (p. 119-20)

After a time the family move into town, the grandparents becoming too old to farm, and wealthy enough to afford it. This portrait of Frances, the eldest daughter of their neighbours, the Harlings, seems to capture something of the nature of the community bonds that are so important to Cather:

"Frances was dark, like her father, and quite as tall. In winter she wore a sealskin coat and cap, and she and Mr Harling used to walk home together in the evening, talking about grain-cars and cattle, like two men. Sometimes she came over to see grandfather after supper, and her visits flattered him. More than once they put their wits together to rescue some unfortunate farmer from the clutches of Wick Cutter, the Black Hawk money-lender. Grandfather said Frances Harding was as good a judge of credits as any banker in the county. The two or three men who had tried to take advantage of her in a deal acquired celebrity by their defeat. She knew every farmer for miles about: how much land he had under cultivation, how many cattle he was feeding, what his liabilities were. Her interest in these people was more than a business interest. She carried them all in her mind as if they were characters in a book or play." (p.150)

The book is full of the ordinary life of people in the town and on the prairie. It is almost as if Willa Cather wants to capture this life for posterity, as if she knows that it will not last. She makes reference to how the land with soon be divided and fenced and the way the young people want to escape; in fact it seems to be what people want for their children, that they go out into the world to seek their fortune and not have to toil so long and hard as their forbears. I will leave you with this lovely quote from nearly the end of the book (no particular spoiler there) because it captures Ántonia as some kind of symbol of the life and times that the book is about. She is strong and self-reliant and determined and Jim loves her, and reading his recollections I did too:

"Ántonia had always been one to leave images in the mind that did not fade - that grew stronger with time. In my memory that was a succession of such pictures, fixed there like the old woodcuts of one's first primer: Ántonia kicking her bare legs against the sides of my pony when we came back home in triumph with our snake; Ántonia in her black shawl and fur cap, as she stood by her father's grave in the snowstorm; Ántonia coming in with her work-team along the evening sky-line. She lent herself to immemorial human attitudes which we recognise by instinct as universal and true. I had not been mistaken. She was a battered woman now, not a lovely girl; but she still had that something which fires the imagination, could still stop one's breath for a moment by a look or gesture that somehow revealed the meaning in common things. She had only to stand in the orchard, to put her hand on a little crab apple tree and look up at the apples, to make you feel the goodness of the planting and tending and harvesting at last. All the strong things of her heart came out in her body, that had been so tireless in serving generous emotions.
It was no wonder that her sons stood tall and straight. She was a rich mine of life, like  the founders of early races." (p.353)

Wednesday 6 July 2016

Absolutely nothing

It was a strange coincidence to find myself reading about the Battle of the Somme just the day before the 100th anniversary, making the two minutes of silence in the office on Friday morning all the more poignant. War seems to have become a theme in my reading over the last month or so;  'Birdsong' by Sebastian Faulks is a moving and beautiful book that gives a very graphic portrayal of life in the trenches of World War I. 

Stephen Wraysford is visiting France in 1910 to expand his knowledge about the weaving business but finds himself drawn into a love affair with the enigmatic Isabelle, wife of his host Monsieur Azaire. This brief opening section of the story gives us France in peace time which contrasts very sharply with the jump to six years later when we find Stephen a junior officer in the British army, hardened by his battle experiences and a somewhat cold and distant person. The story follows the lives of both officers and men as they prepare for the big push. The events themselves are so momentous that they overshadow the story; you find yourself becoming like Stephen, unwilling to become attached to any of the characters because you know what is going to happen next. You watch as some people die, others just vanish in the mud. The individual losses become part of a larger loss, they are compounded into a loss for humanity, but Faulks never looses sight of their individuality. Here he tackles the losses on an abstract almost philosophical level:

"Names came pattering into the dusk, bodying out the places of their forebears, the villages and towns where the telegrams would be delivered, the houses where the blinds would be drawn, where low moans would come in the afternoon behind closed doors; and the places that had borne them, which would be like nunneries, like dead towns without their life or purpose, without the sound of fathers and their children, without young men at the factories or in the fields, with no husbands for the women, no deep sound of voices in the inns, with the children who would have been born, who would have grown and worked or painted, even governed, left ungenerated in their father's shattered flesh that lay in stinking hellholes in the beet-crop soil, leaving their homes to put up only granite slabs in place of living flesh, on whose inhuman surface the moss and lichen would cast their crawling green indifference." (p.236)

And then you turn the page and we are back to the reality:

"It was dark at last. The night poured down in waves from the ridge above them and the guns at last fell silent.
The earth began to move. To their right a man who had lain still since the first attack eased himself upright, then fell again when his damaged leg would not take his weight. Other single men moved, and began to come up like worms from their shellholes, limping, crawling, dragging themselves out. Within minutes the hillside was seething with the movement of the wounded as they attempted to get themselves back to the line." (p.238-9)

I was confused to reach the end of that first day and then abruptly find myself in 1978. I did not want to be there. I felt like I had become so involved in the war that I needed time to readjust. This woman with her shallow concerns irritated me. I kept going because I assumed she had some link to Stephen Wraysford, but I found myself impatient for the other story. We return to France a year later, to men still digging tunnels and living in the mud. I found myself very much drawn into the world of the soldiers and the claustrophobia of the underground work. This scene has Stephen and his friend Weir trapped underground after a tunnel collapse, trying to recapture an escaped canary (used to detect gas in the tunnels), it also linked rather strangely back to 'The Yellow Birds':

"Stephen felt Weir's eye boring into him. He reached into his pocket and found his knife. He opened the blade and reached up over Weir's knees. Weir, straining up on his back was able to meet his gaze as Stephen's head appeared between his shins. The two men looked at each other over the tiny yellow head between them. Stephen thought of the lines of men he had seen walking into the guns; he thought of the world screaming in the twilight at Thiepval. Weir looked steadily at him. Stephen put the knife away in his pocket. He fought back the rising tears. Weir might let the bird go. It might touch him." (p.305-6)

It is a peculiar moment of humanity as they struggle in the tunnel. Weir tells him it is a court-martial offence to let the bird escape. It is the second (and not the last) time the threat of death for failure to obey orders is mentioned in the story. (In an early scene Stephen 'lets off' a soldier who had fallen asleep on watch, also an executable offence.) I went (naturally) to wikipedia to find out the truth about executions during the war. It tells me that while over 20,000 men were court-martialled for offences that carried the death penalty only 306 British and Commonwealth soldier were executed. That is still a horrific thing to do to soldiers who were often conscripted, and it was not until 2006 that they were posthumously pardoned. 

The world back home does not seem to be affected the way it is during the Second World War and Stephen goes home to find his parents somewhat bored with the whole thing. Dunk said he read that there were attempts to hide the truth about the Somme from the public back home, but as the extent of the losses became apparent they were unable to do so. Here some soldiers are arriving back on leave, and the shock of the people waiting is testament to how little they understood the reality of what life was like for the soldiers:

"When the boat arrived in Folkestone the next day there was a small crowd assembled on the quay. Many of the boys and women waved flags and cheered as the mass of infantry came up the gangplank. Stephen saw the looks on the faces of the crowd change from gaiety to bewilderment: for those come to greet sons or brothers these were the first returning soldiers they had seen. The lean, expressionless creatures who stepped ashore were not the men with gleaming kit and plump smiles who had been played aboard by the regimental bands. Some wore animal skins they had bought from local farms; many had cut pieces from their coats with knives to increase their comfort or to bind their cold hands. They wore scarves about their heads instead of caps with shining buttons. Their bodies and their clothes were encrusted with dirt and in their eyes was a blank intransigence. They moved with grim, automatic strength. They were frightening to the civilians because they had evolved not into killers but into passive beings whose only aim was to endure." (p.354-5)

It is the careless, almost casual, death of his friend Weir that finally brings some real emotional response from Stephen, and as a reader I grieved with him, because where Stephen had been resigned to the war and his almost inevitable death I felt like Weir had continued to refuse to believe it was real:

"All that night and the next day he lay unmoving on the bed. He did not speak when Montford came back to try to rouse him. He turned away the food that was bought to him. He cursed himself for his last act of impatience towards Weir. He hated the selfishness of his feeling, because he was more sorry for himself than for his dead friend. He could not help it. Like all the others, he had learned to dismiss death from his thoughts; but he could not shake off the loneliness. Now that Weir was gone there was no one who could understand. He tried to make himself cry but no tears would come to express his desolation or his love for poor mad Weir." (p.386)

I remained ambivalent about the brief parts set in 1978, I guess they were designed to link the war to the future and to give Stephen a life that went on, but I did not get engaged with any of the people in that world. I will give the last word to Stephen. Elizabeth (his granddaughter) unearths some diaries, written in a strange code that she enlists a friend to help decipher. The story is about the Great War, the war to end all wars. As the song goes ... War ... What is it good for ... Absolutely nothing:

"I have tried to resist the slide into this unreal world, but I lack the strength. I am tired. Now I am tired in my soul.
Many times I have lain down and I have longed for death. I feel unworthy. I feel guilty because I have survived. Death will not come and I am cast adrift in a perpetual present.
I do not know what I have done to live in this existence. I do not know what any of us did to tilt the world into this unnatural orbit. We came here only for a few months.
No child or future generation will ever know what this was like. They will never understand.
When it is all over we will go quietly among the living and we will not tell them.
We will talk and sleep and go about our business like human beings.
We will seal what we have seen in the silence of our hearts and no words will reach us." (p.421-2)

Friday 1 July 2016

The Yellow Birds

I had read interesting things about 'The Yellow Birds' by Kevin Powers so picked it out immediately when I spotted it in a charity shop. I think that not just anyone could write a story like this. The book is a novel but it draws on his experience during and after the Iraq war. The book manages to be not just about Power's experience but also about the very nature of war and how human beings come to participate in it. 

Bartle and his mate Murph are serving in the city of Al Tafar. It is not clear what exactly they are doing there, mainly shooting at anything that moves. The writing lurches from poetic to visceral between sentences; the struggle between life and death is happening in this alien place so far removed from their normal lives that they might as well be on another planet. It is about how soldiers dissociate themselves from what they do. It is about how what they do undermines their very humanity.

"We hardly noticed a change when September came. But I know now that everything that will ever matter in my life began then. Perhaps the light came a little more slowly to the city of Al Tafar, falling the way it did beyond thin shapes of rooflines and angled promenades in the dark. It fell over buildings in the city, white and tan, made of clay bricks roofed with corrugated metal or concrete. The sky was vast and catacombs with clouds. A cool wind blew down from the distant hillsides we'd been patrolling all year. It passes over the minarets that rose above the citadel, flowed down through the alleys with their flapping green awnings, out over the bare fields that ringed the city, and finally broke up against the scattered dwellings from which our rifles bristled. Our platoon moved around our rooftop position, grey streaks against the predawn light. It was still late summer then, a Sunday, I think. We waited." (p.4-5)

He does not try to shield anyone from the realities of what happened, of what they did. Death manages to be simultaneously matter of fact and surreal.

"Malik's (their interpreter) body, crumpled and broken at the foot of the building didn't shock me. Murph passed me a smoke and we lay down beneath the wall again. But I could not stop thinking about a woman Malik's conversation had reminded me of, who'd served us tea in small, finely blemished cups. The memory seemed impossibly distant, buried in the dust, waiting for some brush to uncover it. I remembered how she'd blushed and smiled, despite her age, a paunch, a few teeth gone brown and her skin appearing like the cracked dry clay of summer."

and sometimes he had 'normal' reactions to situations, and this just serves to highlight how wrong everything is:

"A man ran behind a low wall in a courtyard and looked around, astonished to be alive, his weapon cradled in his arms. My first instinct was to yell out to him, 'You made it, buddy, keep going,' but I remembered how odd it would be to say a thing like that. It was not long before the others saw him too.
He looked left, then right, and the dust popped around him, and I wanted to tell everyone to stop shooting at him, to ask, 'What kind of men are we?' An odd sensation came over me, as if I had been saved, for he was not a man, but a boy, and that he may have been frightened, but I didn't mind that so much, because I was frightened too, and I realised with a great shock that I was shooting at him and that I wouldn't stop until I was sure he was dead, and I felt better knowing we were killing him together and that it was just as well not to be sure you are the one who did it."  (p.20-21)

and the brief moments of calm serve to highlight the chaos of the conflict:

"The ash from the burning clay bricks and the fat of lean men and women covered everything. The pale minarets dominated the smoke, and the sky was still pale like snow. The city seemed to reach upwards out of the settling dust. Our part was over, for a while at least. It was September and though there were few trees from which leaves could fall, some did. They shook off the scarred and slender branches, buffeted by the wind and light descending from the hills to the north. I tried to count the leaves as they fell, removed from their moorings by the impact of mortars and bombs. They shook. A thin sheaf of dust floated off each one." (p.24)

Bartle mentions repeatedly that Murph is not going to survive. It reminded me somewhat of Chronicle of a Death Foretold and the sense of inevitability, that the characters are unable to prevent the events unfolding, but here Bartle is the one who bears the sense of responsibility, having promised Murph's mother, somewhat offhandedly, that he would take care of him. 
I am just stringing quotes together here because every sentence in this book is part of the impact, there is no padding or waffle; the descriptions all create atmosphere, the conversations all build character and relationships. The simple unfolding of the story is a microcosm of war, this one and any other. He is not setting out to make some kind of 'war is bad and pointless' political statement, he does not try to tell you what to think or how to react, it is just laid out for you to see for yourself.

"I thought of my grandfather's war. How they had destination and purpose. How the next day we'd march out under the sun hanging low over the plains in the east. We'd go back into a city that had fought this battle yearly; a slow, bloody parade in fall to mark the change of the season. We'd drive them out. We always had. We'd kill them. They'd shoot us and blow off our limbs and run into the hills and wadis, back into the alleys and dusty villages. Then they'd come back, and we'd start over by waving to them as they leaned against lampposts and unfurled green awnings while drinking tea in front of their shops. While we patrolled the streets, we'd throw candy to their children with whom we'd fight in the fall a few more years from now." (p.91)

The way the story lurches back and forth between Iraq and his home in America focusses your attention on how dislocated life is for Bartle, the unreality of the war seems to have served to make ordinary life feel unreal. Here Bartle is home, driving with his mother after she picks him up from the airport. This little paragraph describes how altered his view of the world is:

"I pictured myself there. Not as I could be in a few months swimming along the banks beneath the low-slung trunks and branches of walnut and black alder trees, but as I had been. It seemed as if I watched myself patrol through the fields along the river in the yellow light, like I had transposed the happenings of that world onto the contours of this one. I looked for where I might find cover in the field. I slight depression between a narrow dirt track and the water's edge became a rut where a truck must have spun its wheels for a good long while after a rain and I saw that it would grant good cover and concealment from two directions until a base of fire could be laid down which would allow us to fall back." (p109-110)

Back in Iraq, I liked this quote; the idea of bodies growing from seeds like flowers creates a weird cognitive dissonance, because it is quite a lovely idea, and yet horrific too:

" 'Body bomb,' he said. All stopped. It was impossible to know who the man was or what brought him to that place, and it was hard to fathom because a moment if never long enough to account for tragedy when you are in it. Grief is a practical mechanism, and we only grieved those we knew. All others who died in Al Tafar were part of the landscape, as if something had sown seeds in that city that made bodies rise from the earth, in the dirt or up through the pavement like flowers after a frost, dried and withering under a cold, bright sun." (p.124)

Last one, I promise. Here a young medic is killed in an attack on the base camp. The care they take over her contrasts so sharply with their general disregard for the dead, and even more so with the way they subsequently deal with Murph when they find his body. Also the lovely image of the sun and the fires:

"A small number of boys out on a head count stopped and turned towards us. A pale review as her body ascended the gently sloping hill, fringed by the bleached and spotted patterns of their uniforms. We conducted her pall in earnest up the remainder of the hill. At the top, we lowered her to the ground and set her under a tree on the tied together boards, her body now translucent and blue-tinted. One of the soldiers alerted the medics and we watched them as they came to her. Her friends grabbed her and enveloped her in hugs and kisses. She rolled absently in their loving arms and they cried out beneath the setting sun. I held my hands to the back of my skull. As I walked away, the muezzin call began. The sun set like a clot of blood on the horizon. A small fire had spread from the crumbling chapel, igniting a copse of tamarisk trees. And all the little embers burned like lamp to light my way." (p.172-73)

Such an intense little book, not for the faint hearted as it is quite graphic in places, unstinting in its honesty and don't expect a happy ending, or a resolution of any kind in fact. Definitely written by a writer who happened to be a soldier, not a soldier who decided to write. Beautifully written, a book with hardly a word out of place.