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“Of all the people I have chanced upon in life, there is no one who has left a greater impression. Months have passed but still Raif Efendi haunts my thoughts….Yet he was hardly an extraordinary man. In fact, he was rather ordinary with no distinguishing features…the sort of man who causes us to ask ourselves, ‘What does he live for? What does he find in life? What logic compels him to keep breathing? What philosophy drives him as he wanders the earth?’ ” – unnamed narrator.

cover madonna fur coatBorn in the Ottoman Empire in 1907 in what is now Bulgaria, author Sabahattin Ali worked as a writer, poet, teacher, and journalist, and he served his country multiple times as a soldier, but he was also a man who believed that women had as much right to be leaders in life as men did, an idea at odds with the militaristic leaders of the Turkish Republic, which was formed in the aftermath of World War I. Writing in his own weekly newpaper, Sabahattin Ali was twice jailed for criticizing the country’s leaders, and mysteries still surround his death by gunshots at the border of Bulgaria and Turkey in 1948, though the nation’s security services are believed to have been responsible. His novel Madonna in a Fur Coat, published in 1943, remains an enduring legacy, reflecting many of his beliefs regarding the role of women within an unusual love story. A new 2013 edition of this book, seventy years after its original printing, has been “Turkey’s best-selling novel for the past three years,” according to the New York Journal of Books, this despite (or perhaps because of) current Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s push to reestablish traditional gender roles within the country.

Ali author photoIn 1941, the unnamed narrator of the novel, quoted at the beginning of the review, is asked by Raif Efendi, a man he has come to know from his employment, to go to his house to retrieve a notebook in which he wrote intimately about his life for ten years, now long past. The last passage in the journal, dated June 1933, conveys Efendi’s highly emotional state of mind: “I cannot go on with all this locked up inside me. There are so many things – that I need to say…but to whom? Can there be another soul wandering this great globe who is as lonely as I? Who would hear me out? Where would I begin?” Efendi’s eventual choice of this narrator to secure the notebook for him shows his absolute – and belated – trust in the narrator as a confidante since he feels that “all this locked up inside me” cannot be shared with his wife and daughter. The narrator is surprised by Efendi’s request: “It seemed impossible that a man like Raif Efendi…would willingly shrink away from those closest to him. [Perhaps] he did not wish those around him to know who he was.” As the narrator reads the journal from the beginning in 1923, he lets the journal tell the story, never interrupting Efendi’s entries as he shares intimacies which will forever change the life of the narrator.

The Tiergarten, to which Efendi escapes when an acquaintancce makes an obvious, unwanted advance towards him.

Berlin’s Tiergarten, to which Efendi escapes after an acquaintancce makes an obvious, unwanted advance towards him.

The action of Efendi’s journal takes place in Berlin, a city the author knew well from his two years of studying and teaching there. His main character Raif Efendi had studied briefly at the Istanbul Academy of Art but was never able to share his deepest feelings on canvas, essential for an artist. His father, hoping to give him a sense of direction, sent him off to Germany to study the soap business, in which the father had some interest. Now twenty-four, Raif, however, spends most of the year learning German instead, reading literature, attending art exhibitions, and getting to know some of the people at the pension where he lives. One exhibition of new expressionist artists, “made me want to laugh” because “these dreadful portraits looked like sketches of criminals.” As he glances toward the main room, however, a “torrent swept through me…I can only remember standing transfixed before a portrait of a woman wearing a fur coat…a face utterly new to me…[and] I couldn’t help but feel that I had known that woman since I’d opened my first book at age seven…since I’d started to dream.”

Andrea del Sarto's Madonna delle Arpie, in which the madonna looks almost identical to the painter, Maria Puder.

Andrea del Sarto’s Madonna delle Arpie, in which the Madonna looks almost identical to the painter Maria Puder.

The portrait is a self-portrait by a woman named Maria Puder, about which a local critic declared that the woman in the painting greatly resembled Andrea del Sarto’s Madonna delle Arpie, with its “expression of anguish and resentment.” Efendi particularly likes the fact that unlike the innocent, girlish madonnas seen so commonly in religious art, this Mary appears to be a woman who has learned how to think, someone who shuns the world to the point that she is not even looking up at the sky, preferring to keep her eyes on the ground. Innocent himself, Efendi spends hours staring at the portrait over the next few days, then unexpectedly sees the artist walking and follows her to a cabaret where she is performing. When she comes to his table, he is overwhelmed. Gradually, they begin to converse, but from the outset Maria warns him not to try to understand her. “There’s one thing you must remember. This all ends the moment you want something from me. …You [men] ask so much of us, as if it were your natural right.” She particularly resents the fact that “Men are the hunters, and we their miserable prey. And our duties? To bow down and obey and give them whatever they want.”

The Romanische Cafe, where Raif Efendi and Maria Puder discuss their future, or lack of it.

The Romanische Cafe, where Raif Efendi and Maria Puder discuss their future, or not.

With the emotional roles between Raif and Maria reversed from the social norm, especially in the mid-1920s, the relationship features Raif as the naïf, certainly in the thrall of Maria, who, in turn, wants to keep everything on an intellectual level, even though her work requires her to flirt with the men who come to the cabaret. “The moment I see you pitying me is the moment I say goodbye,” she announces. They get closer as they come to know each other, and he falls completely in love while she still believes that “As different as you are, you are still a man.” Going to the famed Romanische Café, they eventually begin to communicate about what love is and is not, and Maria blames herself for not being able to love freely. Their unstable relationship changes still further as time passes.

grunewald forest

The Grunewald Forest, still a romantic environment for those looking for a quiet escape.

As the reader knows from the outset, Raif keeps his journal for ten years, after which eight more years pass before he finds someone like the narrator who can appreciate and learn from his experiences. The novel, an intense romance, albeit an unconventional one, becomes even more fully developed the longer it lasts. Forthright and realistic regarding social issues, despite the overarching romantic elements, the 1940s style feels a bit old-fashioned, but the themes could not be more current. With this novel Sabahattin Ali has left a legacy that must have been unique in Turkey at the time of publication, and it still has much of importance to share, even now.

Photos:  The author’s photo appears on https://i.ytimg.com/

After he is assaulted by an inebriated woman against his will, Raif escapes to the Tiergarten the next day to recuperate – and avoid her.  https://www.gardenvisit.com

Andrea del Sarto’s Madonna delle Arpie greatly resembles Maria Puder, who painted a self-portrait which consumes Raif Efendi.  https://commons.wikimedia.org

Berlin’s Romanische Cafe, where Raif and Maris discuss their relationship and the future, or not.  https://img.morgenpost.de

The Grunewald Forest, still a quiet place to escape:  http://www.viaggiarelibera.com

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Book Club Suggestions, Germany, Historical, Literary, Psychological study, Social and Political Issues, Turkey, Romance
Written by: Sabahattin Ali
Published by: Other Press
Date Published: 11/07/2017
ISBN: 978-1590518809
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

Note:  Swiss author Peter Stamm was SHORTLISTED for the Man Booker International Prize in 2013, and in 2014 he was WINNER  of the Friederich Holderlin Prize in Germany.

“Thomas could hear nothing but the scraping of his soles on the gravelly ground and his breathing which had adapted to his stride pattern. He felt suddenly present as never before; it was as though he had no past and no future. There was only this day and this path on which he was slowly making his way up the mountain.”

cover back of beyondSwiss author Peter Stamm has made a career out of writing short novels in which characters who seem ordinary on the surface become more intriguing – and sometimes more self-aware – as they try to control change or learn to live with it. Some of his characters are damaged while others are simply out of tune with themselves – lacking self-awareness and often oblivious to what is happening around them. Most of these characters must learn to deal with relationships, especially those involving romance, and Stamm often uses dual points of view to convey two different opinions about a relationship and the characters involved in it. This novel is no exception, except in the nature of the couple which is the focus. Here the two main characters, Thomas and Astrid, are older than the characters in the earlier novels – in their thirties as the novel opens and in their sixties when it closes.  At the outset, they have been married for a decade or so and have two young school-age children. Having just returned from a five-week family vacation in Spain, they are tired from all the traveling and the need to open up the house and get settled again. They have quieted the children in bed and have begun the usual domestic activities, with Astrid sorting and washing laundry, and Thomas sitting outside on a bench with Astrid’s empty wine glass sitting beside his full one, as he contemplates getting up the next morning to go to work.

Author photo by Robert Ramos

Author photo by Robert Ramos

Walking back to go inside the house, Thomas almost gets there, but he “hesitated momentarily, then, with a bewildered smile that he was only half aware of, he turned away to the garden gate…lifted the gate as he opened it, so that it didn’t squeak…and, slowly and self-consciously, walked down the road….Even though he was stone cold sober, he had a sense of moving like a drunk, slowly and self-consciously.” Astrid has gone to bed and does not notice his absence until the next morning. She is so confused that she waits more than two days before calling the police to say that Thomas is missing, telling white lies, in the meantime, to his secretary and to the children. During this time, Thomas has been walking through the mountains in eastern Switzerland, heading west, avoiding roads and places near his home as he travels, a decision he has made so quickly that he has not even brought camping equipment or heavy clothing for the cold temperatures in the mountains.

Braunau, Switzerland, where Thomas made a credit card purchase which alerted the police. Photo by Nouly.

Braunau, Switzerland, where Thomas made a credit card purchase which alerted the police. Photo by Nouly.

The novel moves forward with each character describing his/her life in detail from the moment Thomas has left: Astrid does the ironing and fixes meals. “She had always been the voice of reason in the relationship and in the family.” Thomas makes his way through the mountains to a small village where he uses his credit card, a mistake which stimulates the interest of the police.

Trekking in the mountains without winter clothing, Thomas learns to protect himself as he heads west.

Trekking in the mountains without winter clothing, Thomas learns to protect himself as he heads west.

Stamm takes many chances with this novel. His characters are completely ordinary and lacking in self-awareness, and the reader is not able to share experiences with them. They “stand off” on their own, apart from the world at large, protecting themselves. Even the crises they face here do not seem to provide great moments which show their developing consciousness or feelings for those around them. Astrid goes on with her life and her new “job” of taking care of the family. Thomas travels through the mountains from town to town, always being careful not to be noticed, while picking up odd jobs to support himself when he needs money. Author Stamm also extends the time frame of the action in which these characters operate. Since they themselves, and especially Astrid, provide little intrigue for the reader in terms of their thoughts and observations about the world and their lives, the reader is left to watch them for many more years as they continue to do what they have already been doing. Astrid is organized and predictable, despite her husband’s absence. Thomas, whom we never get to know well, goes to new places, meets people, gets jobs, and leaves when he feels like it, moving on to new places and new countries. Eventually thirty years pass.

A snow grouse, or ptarmigan, was responsible for an emergency for Thomas.

A snow grouse, or ptarmigan, was responsible for an emergency for Thomas. Photo by Jan Frode Haugseth

As always, Stamm is precise and clear with his prose and his story line, though he provides little intimacy between the reader and the characters. Emphasizing the themes more than character, the author’s conclusion takes place when Thomas and Astrid are in their mid-sixties. This provides an opportunity for the reader to observe them at this late stage of their lives, along with the lives of their children, brought up with no input from their father for most of their existence. Have Astrid and Thomas learned anything? What, if anything, should they have learned? Are they happy? Have they lived lives which are rewarding to them? What do they owe their families, if anything, and how much true freedom can a person expect in twenty-first century life? Where does love fit into the picture, and what does one do if the person who is loved is unhappy with that love? What does it mean to be responsible? And what do we owe ourselves? All these questions find their resolutions in a surprise conclusion. The reader’s own answers to these questions will determine whether or not s/he finds the surprises realistic – and satisfying.

ALSO by Peter Stamm, reviewed here:  SEVEN YEARS,       AGNES,       ALL DAYS ARE NIGHT

Photos, in order:  The author photo by Robert Ramos appears on http://www.elperiodico.com

Braunau, Switzerland, where Thomas made a credit card purchase which alerted the police. Photo by Nouly.  https://commons.wikimedia.org

Trekking in the mountains alone and without winter clothing, Thomas learns to protect himself as he heads west.  https://www.shutterstock.com

A snow grouse, or ptarmigan, was responsible for an emergency for Thomas. Photo by Jan Frode Haugseth. https://commons.wikimedia.org

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Literary, Psychological study, Switzerland
Written by: Peter Stamm
Published by: Other Press
Date Published: 10/03/2017
ISBN: 978-1590518281
Available in: Ebook Paperback

Roddy Doyle–SMILE

Note: Author Roddy Doyle is WINNER of the Bord Gais Energy Irish Book Award for The Guts (2013), WINNER of the Irish PEN Award for his contributions to Irish Literature (2009), and WINNER of the Man Booker Prize for Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha.

“I can never resist your smile,” [Brother Murphy] had said. He’d seen me when I’d walked in the front gate on the first day. The Brothers’ house was beside the school. All the Brothers lived in there. Murphy must have been looking out the window of his bedroom, at all the new first-years as they arrived. And he’d decided I was the one….I had no big brothers; [so] no one had warned me about him.”

cover smile_1Author of eleven novels for adults, several collections of short stories, many novels for children, and numerous screenplays, including the BAFTA Award-winning screenplay for the film of The Commitments, Irish author Roddy Doyle writes what is arguably his most serious novel, the ironically titled Smile. His characteristic light touch and his humor, even during times of financial difficulties for his working-class Dublin characters, are almost totally missing from this novel, a first-person story of Victor Forde, a man who once wrote radio and newspaper stories about entertainment but gradually found himself unable to write anymore. Like his other novels, this one maintains a conversational tone, but here Victor is talking to himself most of the time, as he tries to figure out how he came to be in the circumstances in which he now finds himself – separated from his wife, living in a flat new to him, not far from where he grew up, essentially unemployed and lacking the ability to see his writing projects through to completion. Were it not for the fact that he has deliberately chosen Donnelly’s pub for his evening entertainment each night, he would have few, if any daily contacts with the outside world.

doyle (2)By alternating Victor’s thoughts as he deals with his current lifestyle changes in one set of chapters, and flashbacks to his childhood and earlier years in others, Doyle is able to create a broad picture of Victor’s background and how he became the man he is at present. When a stranger named Edward Fitzpatrick approaches him at the bar and claims to remember him from his childhood, Victor has no idea who he is or was, and it is only through strong hints from Fitzpatrick that he begins to think he might actually have known him. Before long, Victor is sorry that that he didn’t just walk out and keep walking, but even that would not have protected him from Fitzpatrick, who already knows where he lives. What’s more – he says he remembers him from his days at the Christian Brothers School which they both attended. Fitzpatrick’s references to Brother Murphy and his attraction to Victor and his smile upends Victor’s life, reminding him of some of the details of childhood he’d been happy to forget – along with the teasing he had to endure while dealing with his abuse.

Victor becomes obsessed with werewolves, vampires and zombies, whom he believes are real

Victor becomes obsessed with werewolves, vampires and zombies, whom he believes are real, resembling the Brothers.

Slowly, Victor’s story begins to develop, and some answers to questions about his life begin to appear. It is at this point in which Doyle reveals some of his genius at characterization through effective dialogue. The reader learns that Victor was married for years to Rachel Carey, a woman with whom he fell totally in love, and who loved him with the same enthusiasm. We do not know why or how they separated, but Victor’s reminiscences are lively and realistic, so much so that I was stunned by their effectiveness. I am not a male, not Catholic, and not Irish, but I was drawn completely into Victor’s Irish working class world, and I began to feel as if I were inside his head, sharing his thoughts with him while hoping that he would reveal more information. His vulnerability and his obvious suffering from his abuse by a priest make him a person with whom many readers will empathize. His psychological horrors come alive through Doyle’s choice of details. Chosen to be in a choir learning to sing a mass, he later discovers that this will be sung at a funeral which he and the rest of the choir will attend. His own father is dying, at this point, and his abuse coincides with that. To try to gain some power over his situation, young Victor becomes obsessed with films about werewolves, vampires, and zombies, whom he decides were real and about whom he constantly talks at school. “What the zombies reminded him of, he says, “dragging themselves, never giving up – was the Brothers.”

Victor sees Pierce Brosnan and Remington Steele as idols - he himself would like to go to America and become known there.

Victor sees Pierce Brosnan and Remington Steele as idols – he himself would like to go to America and become known there.

As Victor describes his growing up years and his life seems to become more normal, it is his overwhelming love for Rachel which helps to create his transformation. They love watching the TV series of Remington Steele: “We were kind of proud of Pierce [Brosnan], an Irishman holding his own in the middle of all that Americanness. That was where we were headed, I thought. America, or at least a bigger place.” As Rachel’s career takes off as a celebrity chef and radio personality, they decide to move into an apartment which they will build above Dublin’s Temple Bar, where Rachel has her kitchen, a place quite different from what it is now, with real people, a local population, and working class values, including “puking and shouting.” Victor becomes convinced, as he comes to know some of the people working on Rachel’s show, that “I had a book in me,” and he realizes, too, that “I’d fallen in love with an adult. I wasn’t a fraud; I was a slow starter.”

the-temple-bar #2

An early photo of the Temple Bar, from about the time of Victor and Rachel. Their apartment would have been on an upper floor above the bar.

The novel to this point feels like a well designed and well developed novel of character, especially the Irish character, and I would advise anyone who likes the sound of the book to this point and has plans to read it to avoid reading professional criticism of this book. A major surprise occurs at the conclusion, and it was spoiled for me by a professional critic who revealed the surprise in a review published by a major review venue. While I hold the critic and the journal’s publisher responsible for that sad eventuality, some of the fault may be Doyle’s. The surprise at the end comes abruptly – and even awkwardly – with no obvious preparation for the reader – and while others may be able to accept it wholeheartedly, there is an aura of trickery – for me at least – as the author resolves all the aspects of the novel very suddenly. This is not to say that the tour de force ending comes completely out of the blue, but it appears at a point at which the reader has already lived through many traumas with Victor, who is coming to some recognitions of his own. Ultimately, the ending feels contrived and artificial, and I think Doyle’s long-time fans deserved better.

ALSO by Doyle, reviewed here:  THE DEAD REPUBLIC,      THE GUTS,      A STAR CALLED HENRY

Photos:  The author’s photo is appears on https://www.independent.ie/

The 1968 poster of the Night of the Living Dead is from https://unfspinnaker.com/

The Remington Steele poster may be found on http://img.moviepostershop.com/

An early photo of the Temple Bar, from about the time of Victor and Rachel, appears on https://www.tripadvisor.co.uk

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Book Club Suggestions, Historical, Ireland and Northern Ireland, Literary, Psychological study, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Roddy Doyle
Published by: Viking
Date Published: 10/17/2017
ISBN: 978-0735224445
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

“If someone were to ask me what love is, I would say, The knowledge that, in a world of lies there is one person who is totally honest with you and with whom you are totally honest, and there is truth between you, even if it isn’t always spoken.” – Judge Devora Edelman

cover three floors upSet in an upscale apartment building on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, Three Floors Up might well have been called “Three Stories Up,” as each of the three floors in this building features a resident who has a story to tell in novella form. Dramatic and intensely personal, these stories have few overlaps among them, but as the author focuses on how each person manages his/her life within an Israeli society which is still growing and evolving, the reader becomes involved in the action, especially the psychological action, in ways quite different from most other fiction. Here the apartment building itself becomes overtly symbolic, a microcosm of the human psyche in general, which author Eshkol Nevo will describe in detail later in the book to tie together his themes. Whether this symbolism allows the author to depict a unique Israeli society and its turmoil more effectively, as some critics claim, or whether it simply provides a vehicle through which the author can emphasize how much these often damaged characters reflect human nature in general, will be up to the reader to decide. Powerful and absorbing, both in literary and emotional terms, these stories offer plenty of excitement, entertainment, and, ultimately, food for thought.

Author photo by Dan Porges

Author photo by Dan Porges

The first story, taking place on the first floor, focuses on Arnon, an aggressive, self-serving head of the household, a designer of successful restaurants, husband of Ayelet, and father of two young daughters, Ofri and Yaeli. Always looking for an advantage, Arnon has enlisted the couple across the hall, elderly German Jews, to act as babysitters for Ofri when he or his wife wants to go out. He reveals his character on the first page when he says, “A couple of pensioners like them have no idea what the going price for a babysitter is in the free market…which means that you can tell them any price you want. So we did. Twenty shekels an hour…The average price in our area climbed to forty, but we stayed at twenty.” Their daughter loves her caregivers, Herman and Ruth Wolf, and though Herman is getting old and a bit forgetful, they continue babysitting, as their pension is not enough to support them. Arnon’s true character, if any reader needs more examples, comes to the fore when Herman and Ofri go out for a walk and get lost one day. Arnon’s accusations against Herman when he eventually finds them – and later against a schoolchild who has bullied Ofri at school – lead to a major loss of control by Arnon.

Riding with a friend into the Goral Hills, Devora learns that as desolate as this area may appear, people can live in the crevices of the hills. There are even nine wells for the people and their sheep.

Riding with a friend into the Goral Hills, Devora learns that as desolate as this area may appear, people live in the crevices of the hills. There are even nine wells for the people and their sheep.

The second story, taking place on the second floor, involves Hani, who is writing to an old friend, Netta, now living in the US. Netta helped Hani survive a breakdown eighteen years ago, and as Hani worries about her current state of mind, she is hoping to hear from her friend again so that she can regain some control of her life. She had previously tried to contact her former psychologist, only to learn that the woman had died two years previously. “Something is happening, Netta, and I can’t tell anybody. But I have to.   I just have to tell someone…I’m scared now that if I don’t tell someone, I’ll just go crazy.” Married to Assaf, whose job takes him away from home for much of the year, she has two children, and she confesses to being jealous of Netta’s wonderful relationship with her children and with her husband. Suddenly, she is surprised by the arrival of Eviatar, her husband’s brother, at her door, a desperate man escaping his creditors, loan sharks, and soon, he knows, the police. His one night in Hani’s apartment becomes longer, as she hides him from the police and promises to find some money so he can escape the country.

As Devora and her friend continue to drive, Devora remembers spending time with her husband at remote Sde Boker, where they also saw an ibex and talked about having children.

As Devora and her friend continue to drive, Devora remembers spending time with her husband at remote Sde Boker, where they also saw an ibex and talked about having children, the son who no longer speaks to her.

The last and best developed story, tells the story of Devora Edelman, a widow and retired judge who writes messages to her deceased husband telling him the local news, including an experience she has had with Hani from the second floor, and some new information about the residents on the first floor. When she decides to go to a public demonstration to escape the apartment house, she passes out, waking up in a tent staffed by psychologists. Resting there, she overhears many conversations and is astonished that “not even once did any of those professional psychologists offer a moral opinion about the aberrant behavior being described to them,” even when one girl admits that she is on the verge of committing incest. The judge believes that the girl needed “to be told what’s good and what’s bad.” Ultimately, Devora helps the psychologists draft a bill, two administrative decisions, and an organized list for improving their working conditions. Other tents follow the lead of the psychologists in asking for Devora’s volunteered legal services. Gradually, she decides she needs to live her own life, instead of recording it for her husband, traveling instead to see new parts of Israel and expanding her view of the world and its choices. Her biggest challenge is the fate of her estranged son, with whom she has had no contact for over three years.

The Million Person March, a rally in Tel Aviv on March 3, 2011, a rally which marked a change in Devora's life.

The Million Person March, a rally in Tel Aviv on March 3, 2011,  which marked a change in Devora’s life.

By now, many who read this will be aware that the three floors of the apartment house represent the three aspects of Freud’s vision of man – the id (Arnon, on the first floor), the ego (Hani, on the second floor), and the superego (Devora, on the third floor) – a point that author Nevo also emphasizes about two-thirds of the way through the book, as he addresses the reader about what he is doing with the book, structurally. Devora questions whether this emphasis on Freud is valid and necessary, a question which I, too, have: For me, imposing this structure and floor-by-floor symbolism on a book which really does not need it, makes it feel artificial, its characters developed for the express purpose of illustrating a point, instead of letting the reader see them as somehow “real.” When, in the final three pages of the book, Devora has an epiphany, she throws the whole organization of the book into irrelevance.  “Alone, a person has no idea which of the three floors he is on and he is doomed to grope in the dark for the light switch” –  an  odd conclusion after the author’s active promotion of the symbolism of the floors throughout the novel.


Photos:  The author’s photo appears on http://www.ithl.org.    Photo by Dan Porges.

Bedouins and their sheep at a well in the Goral Hills:  http://c8.alamy.com

A vacation cottage at Sde Boker, where Devora and her husband talked, years ago, of having children, the son who no longer speaks to her.  https://www.tripadvisor.com/

March 3, 2011, the Million Person March in Tel Aviv, an event with great meaning for Devora.  https://www.haaretz.com

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Historical, Israel, Literary, Psychological study, Social and Political Issues.
Written by: Eshkol Nevo
Published by: Other Press
Date Published: 10/10/2017
ISBN: 978-1590518786
Available in: Ebook Paperback

Note: This book was WINNER of the Irish Book Award for Novel of the Year when it was published in Ireland in 2016. It was also WINNER of the Goldsmiths Prize.

“Oblivion…that fissure in creation where everything is consumed in the raging tides and swells of non-being, the physical world gone down in flames…and pulling with it also all those human rhythms that bind us together and draw the world into a community, those daily rites, rhythms and rituals upholding the world like solar bones, that rarefied amalgam of time and light…visible from the moment I get up in the morning…”

cover solar bonesMarcus Conway, a sensitive man in his early fifties, hears the Angelus bell, a call to prayer, upon returning to his house in the Mayo village of Louisburgh, where his family has lived for unnumbered generations. He is “pale and breathless” – confused, even – and notes that “There is something strange about all this, some twitchy energy in the ether which has affected me from the moment those bells began to toll, something flitting through me, a giddiness drawing me.” He has had a busy morning, with meetings and his job as a civil engineer, but he is home alone at last, his wife at work as a teacher, his artist daughter Agnes happy with her first art show, controversial as it was, and his son Darragh in Australia, exploring new worlds. Standing in his kitchen, he feels as if “there are thresholds to cross, things to be settled, checks to be run,” and as he picks up and reads the local newspaper left for him by his wife, he sees front-page stories telling that “the world is going about its relentless business of rising up in splendour and falling down in ruins with wars still ongoing in foreign parts… while closer to home, the drama is in a lower key but real nonetheless…you can feel the flesh and blood element twitching in them.”

Author Mike McCormack

Author Mike McCormack

As Marcus Conway muses about his life and family, and his village “blistered with shrines and grottoes and prayer houses and hermitages,” he sees the whole of County Mayo as a “bordered realm of penance and atonement,” with three young men starving themselves to death as a political statement, while a young hermit living in the hills, with the blessing of the Vatican, has just come forth with her message to the world: “Hell is real and it’s not empty.” She offers no message of a Redeemer. As Marcus continues reading the paper, he comments that “This is how you get carried away, sitting here in this kitchen carried away on an old theme swept up on a rush of words and associations strewn out across the length and breadth of this county, a hail of images surging through me while at the bottom of the page another story….” That story tells of a construction site which may become part of a massive toxic dump to process industrial and medical waste, and he ruminates on his own job as a civil engineer and his father’s work in construction on the original building on that site which has been shut down now for years because of its pollution – the walls, roofs and ceilings sheathed in asbestos.

Marcus Conway, like Mike McCormack, lives in Louisburgh, County Mayo, on picturesque Clew Bay.

Marcus Conway, like Mike McCormack, lives in Louisburgh, County Mayo, on picturesque Clew Bay.

With his mind in high gear, Marcus Conway continues his free-associating and his revisiting of memories, letting them flow, revealing himself to be an ordinary man with a big heart, some failings, and visions of the future to accompany his vibrant memories of the past. Here author Mike McCormack involves the reader directly in the action, creating an “experimental” novel which some have compared to Proust, Flann O’Brien, Samuel Beckett, and James Joyce. Personally, I think those comparisons are unfair to McCormack. The main character’s free associations here have real structure, and the sense of place and time are vibrant and inclusive of the reader. The reader comes to know Marcus Conway and becomes involved in his life in ways that I, at least, have never experienced with Joyce and other experimental novelists, some of whom seem more interested in the experiments than in creating living characters.

Author McCormack creates a real, thinking man, and he does it through Marcus Conway’s memories. Early in the novel, for example, Marcus reminisces about his engineer father, who loved his Massey Ferguson 35 tractor. One day Marcus comes home from school to discover that his father has removed the engine, has broken it down into all its components, and laid it out on the floor – everything – because “it was burning oil.” Even at this young age, Marcus recognizes that “my father had succumbed to the temptation to take something apart just to see how it was put together, to know intimately what it was he had put his faith in…” For Marcus, however, “this may have been my first moment of anxious worry about the world, the first instance of my mind spiraling beyond the immediate environs of hearth, home and parish, toward the wider world beyond…my imagination took fright and soared to some wider, cataclysmic conclusion about how the universe itself was bolted and screwed together, believing I saw here how heaven and earth could come unhinged…” Forever looking for answers, if any, for the chaos in the world, Marcus Conway continues to reconstruct the details of his life, comments on any resolutions he has made, and goes on to the next issue, drawing in the reader who accompanies him on his “journey.”

Mentioned several times in the novel, Croagh Patrick is the site of pilgrimages. See more information in photo credits.

Mentioned several times in the novel, Croagh Patrick is the site of pilgrimages in County Mayo. See more information in photo credits.

I have not mentioned the book’s “elephant in the room” until now because it may be off-putting for some readers – as it was for me, at first: The entire novel is written as one, single sentence. What becomes obvious, once a reader gets started in this book, however, is that this is the perfect form for Marcus Conway’s story, as he starts reading the newspaper in his kitchen and then moves into aspects of his life, changing subjects and time periods, and revisiting scenes which have left their marks on him. These are, legitimately, the streams of Conway’s consciousness, and author McCormack makes sure that they connect into a whole as the reader continues reading. “Paragraphs,” break up the look of the novel and allow the reader some breathing space as the subjects and Marcus’s observations change, and I found myself becoming so involved in Marcus Conway’s life and comments about chaos vs. order in his and the world’s universe that I actually forgot that this whole book was only one sentence, so carefully does McCormack move from one subject to another and control the pacing of the story. Some anxious critics have given away the ending in their reviews, and that is sad. The author has carefully controlled the novel and that early revelation is unnecessary. Ultimately, this unique novel stands on its own, every aspect of it – including the one-sentence format – working to make author Mike McCormack’s novel a perfect amalgam of form and substance and a thrill to read.

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Achill Island, the largest island off the west coast of Ireland, near Croagh Patrick.

Photos:  The author’s photo appears on https://www.irishtimes.com/

Louisburgh, County Mayo, is where narrator Marcus Conway and author Mike McCormack both live, on Clew Bay.  The small islands here are “sunken drumlins” from an early geological period.  https://i.pinimg.com/

Marcus’s father was obsessed with his Massey Ferguson 35 tractor, and when he took it apart to fix its “burning oil,” he inspired Marcus’s first exposure to what Marcus thought of as chaos in a universe which he had previously imagined as permanently bolted and screwed together.  https://img0.etsystatic.com

Croagh Patrick, 764 meters tall, gets over a million visitors a year.  According to Wiki:  “On the last Sunday in July, thousands of pilgrims climb Croagh Patrick in honour of Saint Patrick who, according to tradition, fasted and prayed on the summit for forty days in the year 441. Masses are held at the summit, where there is a small chapel. Some climb the mountain barefoot, as an act of penance, and carry out ’rounding rituals’, in which they pray while walking sunwise around features on the mountain.”  https://www.geocaching.com

Achill Island is the largest of the islands off the west coast of Ireland, in Clew Bay: http://www.achillproperty.com/

REVIEW. Experimental, Ireland and Northern Ireland, Literary, Psychological study, Social and Political Issues, unique format
Written by: Mike McCormack
Published by: Soho
Date Published: 09/12/2017
ISBN: 978-1616958534
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

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