WHITE CROCODILE [By K T Medina] A few years ago, I fell out
of a tree; about six or seven meters. In the nano-second I had in which to
react, I had the presence of mind to twist my body so that I landed on my side,
not on my head [which would have probably killed me] or on to my back [because
a broken spine would mean a wheelchair for life]. I smashed my right shoulder
so badly that even today I have limited use of my right arm. The surgeons
couldn’t put the damaged bones and tissue back together but thanks to our
fantastic NHS, they gave me a new steel joint and shoulder plate. But the muscle
This novel is divided into chapter headings in terms of
days: DAY 1; DAY 2 &tc up to and including DAY 8. It is about many things
but early on, on DAY 2 someone has his leg blown off by a concealed
anti-personnel land-mine. The author, K
T Medina doesn’t make much of the incident but the level of pain visceral, physical
and mental that he must have suffered can only be imagined.
On DAY 5 he is back home, ‘screwing Keav’, his live-in private
Let me tell you, I couldn’t so much as butter a slice of
toast on the third day after smashing my shoulder.
Big mistake buying this. Its her debut novel and has
reviews to die for on Amazon and by and large I do trust the Amazon reviewers
but reading it, I felt I had landed on another planet. Badly written and poorly
edited . . . was it edited? . . . it has no redeeming features. At times it
feels like a creative writing test to see how many plot-holes you can cram into
one book. And it is tell, tell, tell; it’s like that bloody Place Called Winter
I forced down over Christmas, don’t they teach show not tellat these
creative writing courses? The subject matter is mine-clearance in contemporary
Cambodia, very laudable and quite commendable that she can skilfully bring this
to our attention without being morbid or overly pessimistic about the awful
situation there. Most reviewers mention this and I am sure that Ms Medina and
her publishers and Agents would make the case that the subject matter is
deserving of our attention, but she has decided it isn’t dismal enough. She
introduces other harrowing miseries; sex trafficking; extreme child cruelty;
murder; domestic abuse; corruption; forced prostitution; Bosnia; wretched
third-world orphanages. No barrel is left unscraped. And all this is served up
to entertain us? My objection to these
novels is that using violence and hysteria as a way of combating violence and
hysteria plays into the enemy’s hands. Greets one form of excess with another.
There is clearly a constituency for misery-fiction but I am
not amongst them.
There is a school of thought that we need to read about
these horrors so that as individuals, we can process the terrors of the world:
the beheadings; the crucifixions; people being burned alive in cages; the fear,
the dismay at man’s cruelty to man. The only way we can sleep at night is by
processing them in crime fiction or a thriller like White Crocodile or a cinema experience like The Revenant.
But she employs such monumental effort for so little return.
EIGHT MONTHS ON GHAZZAH STREET [By Hilary Mantel]. Never
lived in the Middle East. Spent six months traversing it; Iraq; Iran;
Afghanistan plus Turkey but I have never lived there. I only know one person
who actually lived in Saudi and he lived by himself on an expat compound. I
don’t think he liked it much but he learned his trade there and made enough
money to buy a house when he returned. My friend Susan has spent most of her
adult life working in the Middle East . . . but never Saudi . . .
This book is a tour
de force. Hilary Mantel lived in Jeddah for four years and wrote Eight Months on Ghazzah Street only when
she got home to London. She is quoted in an interview in the Guardian as saying
that the day she flew out of Saudi was the happiest day of her life.
The novel is about a young English couple who move to Saudi
to work and make more money than they could realistically make anywhere else.
Frances and her husband, Andrew, are not able to get into one of the
foreigners' compounds when he goes to work on a new ministry building in Jeddah
and instead are installed in a company flat in an apartment block along one of
the main roads. On her very first day Andrew, who had arrived three months earlier,
locks her into the apartment when he goes out to the site in the morning for
her own protection. Her sense of isolation and alienation become palpable with
the description of her endless days of nothingness. Her choices seem to be
between staying in a blank apartment watching Saudi religious television or
venturing outside into the blazing heat where she has to fend off the
unreconstructed attitudes, leers and menacing catcalls of men driving by who
consider unveiled Western women to be ‘available’.
Out of desperation, Frances
becomes friends of sorts with Yasmin, the young Pakistani woman across the hall
and the Arab woman living upstairs, each of whom explains the dismaying restrictions
of being a woman in this puritanical society. The flat directly above Frances
and Andrew is supposedly empty, but Frances hears sounds of life there. The
development of this mystery and its denouement are effectively the narrative
arc of the novel. This isn’t a spoiler but if you are thinking of reading it,
you must read page 1 carefully.
Though nothing seems to be
happening, events are forming up in the shadows.
It is beautifully and ferociously
well written. She is at her peak at this point  with a detailed eye that
summons up the place and the people to perfection. Here is Yasmin’s mother- in-
When Frances went across the hall, and rang
Yasmin’s doorbell, a huge yellow sari opened the door; and Raji’s mother looked
down at her, in silence. She did not speak any English, or if she did, she
didn’t speak it now; and she folded her arms across her matron’s bosom, seeming
to squash it into overlapping layers and yellow folds. Her face was jowly, her
eyes direct; her body was slow, deliberate, pachydermatous; soon she might
bellow. There was a fringe of hair on her upper lip; and her arms were bare to
the elbow, as if for combat.
‘I’ll call later,’ Frances said.
Does it stand the test of time? Well, does Kafka stand the
test of time? . . . because that is what this is; Kafka in the 20thC but in a
real place with real horrors. Written in 1986 before mobile phones and email
and DVD’s and video streaming reviewers are queuing up on Amazon to testify
either that, ‘it is not like that now’ or, ‘it is worse now’. We were kidnapped by a taxi driver in Iran
once but people say it is more liberal now.
Last time I was in Istanbul about five years ago, I thought
it was marginally better though I couldn’t comment on the situation in Jeddah. Susan
has told me many times that she never mixed with the local population and no
matter how westernised they appeared to be, it was always only a veneer. You go
into their soulless homes and the television is on all day; but it isn’t
showing CNN or the BBC or Call the
Midwife; it is a mullah preaching from the Koran. All day.
Whether or not it reflects the situation today is bordering
on irrelevant; this novel tells of how she found things; more compellingly
evoked through action and interaction than via musing and anecdotal recollection.
Forty out of fifty reviews on Amazon give it 5*.
I cannot recommend it highly enough.
THE DEVILS MAKING [By Sean Haldane] Someone has given this
one star on Amazon. I don’t think I have ever given anything one star; I mean,
you have to take some responsibility when reviewing a book, you can’t indulge yourself. I hated A Place Called Winter but giving it one
star would be a reflection on my stupidity in buying/reading the bloody thing.
Patrick Gale must have spent at least a solid year writing it and dissing his
efforts with a one star review would be completely unreasonable.
This won the Arthur Ellis award in 2015, Canada’s highest
literary award. It is set in Canada in the late nineteen hundreds but the
author, Sean Haldane is English.
So, coincidentally it covers similar ground to A Place Called Winter; immigrants from
England with preconceived ideas roughing it in Canada. Similar in many ways to The Revenant [see recent cinema
reviews]. Tempted to say flavour of the month but of course that doesn’t take
account of my own reading choices.
It’s a kind of Agatha Christie mystery: someone is brutally
murdered and as we meet the inhabitants of the town we hear their backstories
and learn their dark secrets and try to work out in our minds whodunit. The
author, Haldane is or was until recently professor of neuropsychology somewhere
in the NHS and all the while regales us with information about psychology and
the primitive ideas of that time [about neuropsychology]. All jolly interesting.
It’s a bit clunky however and he does an awful lot of telling when he should be
showing. But it isn’t bad, a lot better
than A Place Called Winter.
We learn a lot about early settlers and the tribal Indians
and the role of women and the power balances they hold; the approach yields a
wealth of illuminating detail about colonial times but, running to almost 400
pages the author sacrifices momentum I think. It is simply too long.
At the heart of it and for sure the reason it won such a prestigious
award, is a lovely tender love story between the protagonist, Chad [still a
virgin when he lands in Victoria] and a wild and beautiful Indian princess, Lukswaas. It really worked
for me and elicits some terrific writing, like here:
. . . Lukswaas was
impossible to resist at this moment. Or more truthfully since she was doing
nothing, I could not resist what I wanted to do. I pulled her toward me so that
we were face to face and began touching her all over. I moved my face to hers and
brushed her lips with mine . . .I did
not feel like doing more. I caressed her hair, her back, her legs. She began
doing the same to me. I had some vague idea of spreading her legs apart with my
hands and plunging masterfully into her, the way I had always supposed men did
with women, but my main impulse was tenderness, and instead she ended up
rolling over and astride me, then crouching down. . . her body clasped to mine.
Don’t often get that from the male point of view.
And you can guess who the main murder suspect is. Starts
with an L.
I would recommend it; good for these freezing February
Example: What does a Manta driver say
to a tree after a crash? – "Why didn't you get out of my way, I used the
Hmmm. There was an article in the
Telegraph recently claiming that an official poll has found that Germany is the
least funny nation in the world. I can bloody believe it. We have recently been
force-fed adverts in the cinema while waiting to see The Revenant and The Assassin
but all the ads are for German products, Volkswagens and Bosch fridges. There
is no wit or nuance in the adverts; in one someone sends a Golf to crash into some
barrels of explosive but the car is equipped with anti-shunt technology and
stops just short of the explosive which fails to go off. Tee-hee.
I have had to hunt the web to find an
example of a funny German joke and come up with this: The United Nations
initiated a poll with the request, ‘Please tell us your honest opinion about
the lack of food in the rest of the world.’ The poll was a total failure. The
Russians did not understand ‘Please’. The Italians did not know the word ’honest’.
The Chinese did not know what an ’opinion’ was. The Europeans did not know ‘lack’,
while the Africans did not know ‘food’. Finally, the Americans didn't know
anything about the ‘rest of the world’.It’s not bad, actually.
In a lengthy piece elsewhere, the comedian Stewart Lee
claims it is all in the linguistics. He says, ’The German phenomenon
of compound words also serves to confound the English sense of humour. In
English there are many words that have double or even triple meanings, and
whole sitcom plot structures have been built on the confusion that arises from
deploying these words at choice moments. Once again, German denies us this easy
option. There is less room for doubt in German because of the language's
infinitely extendable compound words. In English we surround a noun with
adjectives to try to clarify it. In German, they merely bolt more words on to
an existing word. Thus a federal constitutional court, which in English exists
as three weak fragments, becomes Bundesverfassungsgericht, a vast impregnable
structure that is difficult to penetrate linguistically. The German language
provides fully functional clarity. English humour thrives on confusion’.
He goes on to claim that there is a
tradition of clowning and nuanced cabaret which Germans find amusing and even
if other nationalities don’t get it, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist and
that they lack humour. In another web piece [I have been doing my research!]
the comedy series Fawlty Towers is claimed to have been successfully re-cast
and translated into German and that even the ‘Hitler’ episode was popular.
Nuanced cabaret? Could be.
I wondered if German humour was different
before the 2nd World War; so much humour is Jewish in origin but now
that they have got rid of the Jews, all they have left are their Teutonic VW
Golf adverts. However I found this on
a German website:
Three priests hold a meeting to discuss
where life begins. The evangelical priest says, ‘No question about it, life
begins when the child is born.’ ‘No, no,’ says the Catholic priest, ‘it all
starts when the sperm meets the egg.’ ‘You're both wrong,’ says the Rabbi. ‘Life
begins when the children have left home and the dog is dead.’
I’ve always liked American Country
music and in particular, Bluegrass. Last year I discovered a free-to air
Bluegrass radio channel that plays a good mix of old and new and now I
frequently have it on in the background if I am reading [but not writing; I
need silence for that] or relaxing.
Yes, it’s simple with simple chords and
makes few demands upon you but the best Bluegrass can compare with the best of
anything; Jazz, Folk, Blues, Soul. The best Bluegrass has lyric composition,
subtle melody and arrangement but most of all, some of the loveliest singing voices
you will ever hear. Just to take one popular example: Jolene. Wonderful tune
but they could have done it in twenty different ways: slower [there are many
slower cover versions]; on piano, bluesier; in harmony; more country, even
faster with banjos . But someone knew enough to keep it straight and simple and
let Dolly’s fantastic rendition of her own song shine through.
Listen to Patty Loveless here.She is sixty years old; been singing Country
all her life. Every phrase, every inflection brings out the warmth of her tone.
She needs no vocal trickery to get her message across. Or try Gillian Welch here or
Tim O’Brien here. Beautiful
cadences showcased by the very best American instrumentalists. It’s in their
DNA and when it’s great, it’s great.
We were lucky enough to get tickets for
Tim O’Brien’s second-last date of his UK Tour last Sunday. Sold out in 24
hours. It’s like being in the presence of a God; he is so magnificent, such a
master of his craft. It is rare you get that now.