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Note: William McIlvanney was WINNER of the 1977 Crime Writers Macallan Silver Dagger Award for Laidlaw in 1977 and for The Papers of Tony Veitch (1983), and WINNER of the Scottish Arts Council Award for Fiction for Strange Loyalties in 1992.

My life was one terrible mess.  Miguel de Unamuno had written something that applied to me, if I could think what it was.  I read quite a lot of philosophy in a slightly frenetic way, like a man looking for the hacksaw that must be hidden somewhere, before the executioner comes.  It was something about continuity.  Unamuno says something like: if a man loses his sense of his own continuity, he’s had it.  His bum’s out the window.”–Jack Laidlaw

Jack Laidlaw has never been one to hold back in his assessments, even in his assessments of himself and his problems, and in this third novel of William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw trilogy, published in 1991, after Laidlaw (1977) and The Papers of Tony Veitch (1983), main character Laidlaw faces himself, square-on.  A detective with the Glasgow police, he is divorced, alienated from his teenage children, at a crisis in his relationship with a new woman, and addicted to the possibilities of escape through alcohol.  When he learns that his troubled younger brother Scott, a teacher, has died in a pedestrian accident, his life “snuffed out on the random number plate of a car,” Laidlaw is about ready to “shut up shop on [his] beliefs and hand in [his] sense of morality at the desk.  The world [is] a bingo stall.”  Desperate to believe that Scott’s death must mean more than it seems to mean, Laidlaw also feels an inexplicable sense of guilt.  Requesting a week’s time off from the job, he decides to investigate Scott’s death in an effort to learn how it happened and discover if it was truly random.

Laidlaw, a thinker, philosopher, and reader, has always believed that the cases he investigates have their roots in institutional, fiscal, and political injustices, that they are more than “merely” legal offenses.  “It was the crime beyond the crime that had always fascinated [him], the sanctified network of legally entrenched social injustice towards which [a] crime feebly gestured” on virtually every case he has worked on.  Now, however, his “personal harpies” have come home to roost, “fouling [his] sense of his own worth,” and he is frantic, knowing he must resolve the issues of his brother’s death because it feels “unjust.”  Unless he can come to terms with the randomness of this death and his own sense of guilt and responsibility, if any, he will remain unable to deal with issues involving his own life and his own mortality.  “Where,” he wonders, “does an accident begin?” and “When did my brother’s life give up its purpose so that it could wander aimlessly for years till it walked into a car?”

The Rotunda, the yuppie restaurant where Laidlaw and Brian Harkness meet to discuss the future before Laidlaw leaves for a week to investigate his brother's death.

As he prepares to leave Glasgow for Ayrshire, where he grew up, to investigate Scott’s immediate past, Laidlaw’s young partner Brian Harkness meets him at the Rotunda Restaurant, in an ancient building recently restored, which has become a yuppie symbol of a regenerating city.  There Harkness tells him about a new case that he and another “polis” officer, Bob Liffey, will be working on while Laidlaw is gone:  a man’s body has been found just across the river from the Rotunda with a rope around its neck, one arm and all fingers broken.  The contrast between the “people eating and drinking in the high brightness while in the darkness across the water where the light didn’t reach, a dead man lay abandoned,” is symbolic for the cynical Laidlaw:  “Live high on the hog and don’t give a shit about other people.”  It is in that mood that he departs, determined to get some answers.

A horse show at Floors Castle, near where Scott's former in-laws live and where Laidlaw indicates that "I'm sure my ancestors went on foot and had to fight the ones that sat on horses. And maybe in my heart I'm still fighting them."

What follows is a story that, in its depth, bears more thematic resemblance to Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment than it does to other noir novels.  The main characters of both novels must to come to terms with the personal and ethical impact of their own behavior,  and both engage in intense self-analysis and second-guessing from the outset.  At the same time, however, Laidlaw also feels the obligations and sense of mission felt by  Dostoevsky’s police investigator, Porfiry Petrovich, making Strange Loyalties doubly intense for the reader since Laidlaw must assume two responsibilities – what he owes to himself and what he believes he owes to the public. Though Strange Loyalties is obviously written for a different audience in a different period (and one would not want to push the analogy too far), McIlvanney shares with Dostoevsky the same intensity and seriousness of purpose in his analysis of the themes and of the guilt associated with death.

Edinburgh New Town, where Anna, Scott's ex-wife, has moved: "This was in its origins the most English place in Scotland, built between 1765 and 1850. Photo by Dave Morris, Oxford, UK (See Credits below.)

McIlvanney differs dramatically from Dostoevsky (and from most modern noir writers, for that matter) in his sense of humor, however.  Without sacrificing his intellectual honesty and his well-earned literary credentials, McIlvanney writes from a breezy, irreverent, and often profane point of view, creating in Laidlaw a character whose flaws often get in the way of his personal success but whose sense of absurdity bubbles to the surface, no matter the circumstances.   Laidlaw describes himself as a “strange searcher for justice – the polluted avenger, knight of the rusted sword.”  Later, when he takes two pills for his hangover, he regards that as the equivalent of  “sending in two rookie policemen to quell a riot.”  He sees his father, a millworker,  as “a cave with flowers round the entrance.”  He tells one loathsome character that he resembles “a maintenance worker at Dachau or somewhere.  You might convert the showers to gas..but you wouldn’t actually kill anybody.”  As Laidlaw investigate the specifics of another death in his hometown in an effort to understand more about his brother’s death, however, he gradually broadens his conclusions about everyday life, often expressing these in wry aphorisms:  “The rectitude of the aged is often just the fancy clothes in which incapacity likes to dress up” and later, continuing that analogy, “Fame’s just borrowed clothes.”  His use of symbols deepens the characterizations and the themes.  Scott’s paintings, for example, have a number of symbols, especially that of the “man in the green coat,” the mystery of whom Laidlaw discovers and explains, and he later relates the legend of the boy and the fox in Sparta as a sad allegory of his brother’s life.

Drumchapel with its broken windows and burned out apartments: It is here that Laidlaw meets TV commentator Michael Preston, who is interviewing a young couple, and from whom he hears "the banality of hopelessness."

As Laidlaw gets to know Scott in relation to the four friends from the past who have played a huge role in his life, he comes to know and trust himself, however damaged by life  he may be.   In one moving, but surreal, scene, he gives a petty criminal a new chance as the man’s mother lies dying, showing his ability to his mold his values to the circumstances and not see morality simply as a set of fixed rules.  Despite the large number of characters and the complex interrelationships among them, the novel provides a perfect ending, tying up the details of the themes and the action at the same time that it suggests an appropriate coda:  “And the meek shall inherit the earth, but not this week.”  Memorable for its literary values, its creativity, and its intelligence, as much as for its themes and dramatic action,  the Laidlaw trilogy has achieved the status of a classic during the author’s own lifetime.

NOTE: A new, paperback edition of this book will be released by Europa Editions in April, 2015.

ALSO by William McIlvanney:  LAIDLAW and     THE PAPERS OF TONY VEITCH

Photos, in order: The author’s photo appears on http://harrogateinternationalfestivals.com

The Rotunda Restaurant, an old Glasgow building, now a yuppie restaurant, represents the regeneration of the city of Glasgow. http://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/

Floors Castle horse show, near where Laidlaw’s former in-laws live:  “They’re where it was, and I don’t like the way it was.  It’s maybe a tribal memory.  I’m sure my ancestors went on foot and had to fight the ones that sat on horses.  And maybe in my heart I’m still fighting them.”  http://www.horseandcountry.tv/news

Edinburgh New Town, “the most English place in Scotland,” built between 1765 and 1850, the place to which Scott’s wife Anna has moved.  http://commons.wikimedia.org/ Photographer: [http://flickr.com/photos/davemorris/ Dave Morris] from Oxford, UK. Edinburgh, New Town, taken March 9, 2005 Original source:  [http://flickr.com/photos/davemorris/61\

Drumchapel, with its broken windows and burned out apartments is where Laidlaw meets Michael Preston, a TV commentator who is interviewing an impoverished young man and his wife, and from whom he hears “the banality of hopelessness.”  http://ukhousing.wikia.com/

Joseph O’Neill–THE DOG

Note: The author’s previous novel, Netherland, was WINNER of the 2009 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.  Both that novel and this novel were LONGLISTED for the Man Booker Prize.

“Dubai…a country of buzz.  Maybe the secrecy of the Ruler precludes any other state of affairs, and maybe not.  There is no question that spreading everywhere in the emirate are opacities that…call to my mind submarine depths.  And so the place makes gossips of us whether we like it or not and makes us susceptible to gullibility and false shrewdness.”

Irish author Joseph O’Neill, a citizen of the world, was born in Cork, Ireland, lived in Mozambique as a toddler, in Turkey (his mother’s place of birth) till he reached school age, and in Iran, the Netherlands, and England (where he attended college and then practiced law for ten years), before moving to New York City, where he has lived for the past fifteen years.   Perceptive and particularly attuned to cultural differences and their ironies as a result of his own upbringing, O’Neill writes a darkly comic novel set in Dubai, creating an unnamed narrator whose real first name, never mentioned because he hates it, begins with the letter X.  In an unusual twist, this main character is a man so lacking in personality that he himself also resembles an X.  A lawyer who for nine years lived with Jenn, a co-worker, X is now single, with almost no resources, emotional or financial.  The breakup, coming as it did when he and Jenn were in their mid-thirties, was toxic, her revenge leaving him with few funds, no apartment, no friends among their mutual acquaintances and fellow employees, and virtually no prospects for a better life.  His public scorn and denigration on the internet’s social media, perhaps engineered by Jenn, are so widespread that even Facebook provides no refuge for him.

Through a fluke, X and Jenn had attended Donald Trump’s wedding in 2005, an event which eventually leads a wealthy Lebanese college acquaintance of X, Eddie Batros, to assume that X and Trump are friends.  In 2007, Batros offers him a job working for the family, which now lives in Dubai, just before that country’s economic collapse in 2009.  Treated like a dog and completely ignored for months after the Batros job offer, X also suffers the humiliation of being stood up when he flies to London for an interview.  Eventually, however, he is hired as the Batros Family Officer, managing the family’s law firm, their legal affairs and assets, their investment and tax strategies, their international concierge services, the Batros Foundation operating primarily in Africa, and the family’s accounts on the Isle of Man, where they keep their reservoir of personal wealth.  The people he supervises “are in a position to commit embezzlement or otherwise gravely fail the family,”  and his job is to make sure that no one steals from the company.

Dubai Airport: “A vast white palace filled with rows of the grandest white columns in the world…maybe ten feet in diameter.” People, like the man in the white robe here, travel on the people-movers in the center.

Living on the eighteenth floor of a luxury apartment complex on Prosperity Bay in Dubai, X begins to hope that his life has changed in this new, almost surreal environment where no one knows him.  He has plenty to time on his hands.  His job, despite all the supposed duties, involves almost no actual work, and his contact with Eddie Batros and his brother Sandro is almost non-existent.  In his free time he takes advantage of the highly paid prostitutes available to him at the most elegant hotels, and never questions what the family is doing.  Still thinking about Jenn and the sad details of their relationship, his musings reveal much more about his “character” to the reader than they do to X himself.

The Atlantis, a 1500-room resort with a marine theme, opened in 2008.

The third plot thread concerns the disappearance of Ted Wilson, a deep sea diver, like X himself, who has suddenly gone missing.  Referred to as “The Man from Atlantis” and nicknamed for the hero of a 1970s TV series, Ted Wilson has been living in X’s apartment building, and any real or imagined sighting of him immediately appears on the internet social media and in e-mails.  Much speculation arises about Ted Wilson’s life, both in and out of the water, along with questions about what this American has been doing in Dubai:  “A person usually needs a special incentive to be here – or perhaps more accurately, to not be elsewhere – and surely this is all the more true for the American who, rather than trying his luck in California or Texas or New York, chooses to come to this strange desert metropolis,” a description which ironically does not even give X a moment of pause.  The entrance of Mrs. Ted Wilson into X’s life adds to the complications.

X has the opportunity to meet with a woman in an underwater bedroom of the Atlantis.

The author’s depiction of X and his life in Dubai provides many scenes of fun, humor, and irreverence, but because X is sometimes hopelessly dense – and gullible – about social relationships, most readers will find it impossible to empathize with him on more than a superficial level when the expected complications “unexpectedly” intrude.  Though he is, at heart, a good man, he is malleable and amenable to being grossly humiliated, as if he does not believe that he deserves better.  Intelligent, he still trusts virtually everyone, hoping, perhaps for their friendship, despite his terrible breakup with Jenn.  He even accepts as one of his major duties, that of “babysitting” for Sandro Batros’s obese fifteen-year-old son, trying to keep him busy as an intern and even weighing him each week.  Ordered by Sandro Batros to give the son a sense of values, X does not think twice about the ironies involved in this task and what they may mean.

The Burj Dubai/Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, is visible from every part of Dubai, a building seen by X as vastly superior in design to the Freedom Tower in New York

Filled with vibrant and revelatory scenes, this very funny novel unfortunately lacks a clear focus.  Since this is also characteristic of X himself, the reader must rely on witty and insightful details for the novel’s compelling interest.  At one point, for example, X is told by the fifteen-year-old Alain to [expletive]-off, when he is asked to help carry out the trash.  To this, X replies (with what he describes as his “best move”), “Listen, you’re hurting my feelings when you say something like that.” When Alain then sniggers, X’s reaction is: “Vulgar abuse and childish f-bombs are water off a duck’s back.  But this snigger is directed at the very notion of fellow feeling.”  He takes out the trash himself.  While O’Neill excels at providing this kind of information within other small scenes, it may not be enough to maintain the interest of all readers.  The wild and very clever conclusion does tie up the loose ends of this loose plot, satisfying those who have been absorbed in the wittiness of the writing and the insights provided into the unusual culture and lifestyles of Dubai, and for many of us that be will be enough.  The novel provides unique, private glimpses of life in an emirate which rarely shows its private side.

A map of the Emirates in relation to the rest of the Persian Gulf is shown here. Dubai is near the tip of the peninsula of the United Arab Emirates in the bottom right of the map. Just double-click. Double-click to enlarge.

Photos, in order: The author’s photo appears on http://www.irishpost.co.uk/

The Dubai Airport is  “a vast white palace filled with rows of the grandest white columns in the world…maybe ten feet in diameter.”  People travel on the people-mover in the center of the photo:http://www.constructionweekonline.com

The Atlantis, a marine-themed hotel with 1500 rooms, opened in 2008: http://holidayspackages.co.za/

X enjoys an evening with a woman in an underwater room of the Atlantis:  http://travel.ninemsn.com.au/

The Burj Dubai/Khalifa is the tallest building in the world, visible form every part of Dubai.  X finds it superior to the Freedom Tower in New York comparing the Burj Khalifa to a blade of grass and the Freedom Tower in NYC to a “stump – a gargantuan remnant.”  http://openmarkets.in/

A map of the Emirates in relation to the rest of the Persian Gulf is shown here. Dubai is near the tip of the peninsula of the United Arab Emirates in the bottom right of the map. Just double-click.  http://www.geographicguide.com

“I envy the winds, the water, and the birds whenever I think of them.  They blow, flow, and fly; they all get to leave, whereas, in spite of my two quick legs, I am condemned to stay among the mountains and the river valleys, not much different from a tethered horse.”  Dshurukuwaa, main character of the novel (and real name of Galsan Tshinag).

There are not many times when one can say that a novel – or series of autobiographical novels, in this case – is truly unique, something written from so personal and unusual a perspective that it becomes a completely new experience for the reader, yet Galsan Tschinag has succeeded in accomplishing this.  Born into the nomadic Tuvan culture of Mongolia in 1944, Tschinag, like his parents and grandparents, grew up following the seasons with his sheep and yaks and living with his extended family in a collapsible yurt as part of a small community (ail) which moved from the mountains to the steppes and back so that the animals could feed. With the eyes and ears of a poet, Tschinag recreates his life in three volumes:  The Blue Sky (2006), about his first eight years living with his family in their yurt in the Altai Mountains, shows his energy, his intelligence, and his sensitivity to the mysteries of life, which he has learned through Tuvan myths, stories told by family, and his own observations of the natural spirits so tangibly present in all aspects of the natural world around him.

His second novel, The Gray Earth (2010), continues his story as dramatic changes occur in the 1950s, not just to him and his family but to his culture and to all of Mongolia, as the Russians take over their lands and systematically subvert the local cultures and their beliefs in spiritual powers, in part through the requirement that the brightest children attend Russian boarding schools for nine months a year, returning home only for summer work.  The third novel, The White Mountain (scheduled for release in April, 2015), continues the life of the main character, Dshurukuwaa, as he completes school in Mongolia and is sent by the Russians to Leipzig, where he continues his education and eventually obtains his doctorate.  There he begins writing (in German) in an effort to save the culture he remembers in Mongolia.  Now in his seventies, Tschinag tells us in the Afterword to The Blue Sky, that he has returned to Mongolia, and “With my shaman’s whisk, a truncheon, or a laptop [!], I alternate between living in the indigenous culture of the post-socialist Tuvans [in the mountains and in Ulan Baatar]…and the enlightened state monopoly of Western Europe.”

Mongolian boy, about the age of Dshurukuwaa/ Tschinag

As The Gray Earth opens, Dshurukuwaa/ Tshinag is eight years old, and already he has determined to become a shaman, with the aid of an aunt by marriage, Aunt Purwu.  When he oversteps and intervenes in a ceremony being conducted by Aunt Purwu to drive out an evil spirit, however, his parents believe that he “has done worse than bring shame to the family – [he] has enraged the blue sky.”  The night of his childish intervention has led to the killing of a dozen sheep by wolves, and they believe it is his fault.  Though he swears off shamanizing, he still cannot keep himself from chanting when he is outdoors, calling out to the spirits, and using the poetry which frequently overcomes his soul to praise and honor them.

Altai Mountains with yurt

Unfortunately for him, he is overheard one day by his much older brother, who has returned home unexpectedly from the Russian boarding school where he is the principal.  He announces to the parents that Dsurukuwaa has “played the baby long enough – it has to stop.  Anyone who makes rhymes on death and the devil and fills the sky and the earth with his shouting can learn a few measly letters and numbers,” and he convinces them to let him bring the boy to the boarding school where another older brother and sister are already in attendance.  The boy “feels ambushed.”  When his sister and brother went to school, “they looked dazzling, wrapped from head to toe in colorful brand-new clothes Mother had sewn throughout the summer.  Father himself had led them away.”  He, however, is in rags.  “My headscarf is frayed and stained with squirrel blood and fish slime,” and he hopes no one will see him. Frightened and convinced that he is truly different, he arrives at the school and finds it a “prison,” a word which takes on new meanings when he tries to escape the school, gets caught, and ends up beaten and thrown into the equivalent of a real prison at the age of eight.

Larches with Altai Mountains in background. One offensive of the head of the school involves cutting down the larches nearby, which stimulates outrage first, then surrender by the students.

Galsan Tschinag’s sensibilities dominate this novel/memoir, but he never loses sight of his childhood point of view, even as he recreates the political climate of Mongolia under the Russian occupation and the very real areas in which the Russian goals conflict with the inherent spirituality of many of the students in the school.  For the Russians, only the pragmatic, present, and achievable ends which govern both the school administration and the occupying forces, have any value, and they use their allies, the Kazakhs, to enforce these goals.  Someone like Dshukurukuwaa/ Tshinag, with a strong awareness of the spiritual values inherent in the sky, the land, and the mountains, must either keep his mouth shut or risk all. Before long, the “chinks” in the armor of those Mongolians who seem to be cooperating fully with the Russians appear, as circumstances arise in which one or more of them needs the help of a shaman to fend off devastating illness or physical danger.

Chalama, colored cloths placed on a tree in a sacred place, symbolize reverence for the universe, the grandeur, beauty, and wisdom of nature.

While the boy suffers alone and tries to survive his new environment, he also wants to learn, and he is so intelligent that he is able to straddle the line between the old and the new ways, at least in public.  The vibrant and sympathetic depiction of peripheral characters with whom Dshurukuwaa comes into contact, many of them lonely people without his own inner resources, adds to the drama of this novel and conveys the many levels on which the fight to preserve or destroy the “alien” culture of the Tuvans takes place.  Infighting, as one person cooperating with the authorities tries to save himself by blaming another, will sound familiar, and as those in charge set about instituting a series of  “offensives” to emphasize the power and influence of the Russians, they set up the conditions which result in a dramatic denouement affecting Dshurukuwaa and his family which nevertheless feels natural despite its obvious symbolism.  Katharina Rout’s translation helps bring this novel to life and makes each character feel like “one of us” on the human level, despite the obvious differences in culture.  Powerful and enlightening.

ALSO by Tschinag:  THE BLUE SKY

Photos, in order: The author’s photo appears on http://www.lebensraum-kunst.de

The Mongolian boy is shown on http://worldexpeditions.co.uk

The Altai Mountains with a yurt may be found on http://www.filmapia.com/

The larches on the Altai are from http://www.russiawanderer.com/

Chalama, brightly colored cloths on a tree on a sacred place represent reverence for the universe and the grandeur, beauty, and wisdom of naturehttp://tyulyush.wordpress.com/

Note: Damon Galgut was WINNER of a Commonwealth Writers Prize in 2003.  Both The Good Doctor (2003) and In a Strange Room (2010) were SHORTLISTED for the Man Booker Prizes in the years of their publication.

“His writing felt to him light, insubstantial.  He did not have the weight, he thought, to measure up to his themes.  He was writing about money and power, among other things, and he bumped up every day against the thinness of his knowledge.  Always he ran aground on the edges of what he knew, and found himself beached in ignorance.  And here again was the old question of marriage, and the way that men and women behaved together.  What could he say about these things?”

South African author Damon Galgut’s fictionalized biography of author E. M. Forster (1879 – 1970), known as Morgan, takes a different approach from non-fictional biographies, synthesizing all the author’s research into the character of Forster and then journeying inside his mind, ultimately allowing “Forster” to tell his own story.  As the openly gay Galgut emphasizes throughout this novel, Forster’s most significant difficulty in his personal life and in his writing seems to have been in reconciling his homosexuality with the rest of his life so that he could live and love fully on all levels.  During Forster’s most prolific years as a novelist, 1908 – 1924, “minorite” activities were almost universally hidden – not just frowned upon by society, but rejected as aberrant behavior.

Strict codes of behavior governed how people interacted within various social classes, and the need to conform allowed little room for any kind of social experimentation and led to the ostracism of those who were “different.”  How “minorites,” in particular, came to terms with their essential natures and were able to live within this restricted society becomes a major theme of this novel.

The novel opens in 1912 after the success of Forster’s first three novels – Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905), The Longest Journey (1907), and A Room with a View (1908), and Forster is on his way to India for the first time.  Six years earlier, he’d been living in Surrey with his mother when he was asked if he would tutor a seventeen-year-old student from India, Syed Ross Masood, a young man who needed Latin tutoring before he went to Oxford.  Over the next five years, the young man steals Forster’s heart, though Forster remains outwardly “paternal” toward him.  Masood, in turn, finds Forster “like family to him.”  All through Masood’s college years, they share a deep friendship, and Masood instinctively recognizes that Forster is different from most Englishmen: “From the very first moment I met you, I knew that here was an Englishman who didn’t see the world like the rest of his countrymen.  You don’t realize it, but you have an Oriental sensibility.  That is why the book you’ll write will be unique.”  Masood wants him to write a novel about the English in India (A Passage to India), a novel which does not take form for more than a dozen years.

E. M. Forster (left) with Syed Ross Masood, his student

After this introduction, the novel divides into three parts and a conclusion—Forster’s six-month trip to India after Masood returns home, his three years in Egypt working for the Red Cross during World War I, another trip to India, and the conclusion in which he describes writing his final novel, A Passage to India.  Throughout the novel, Forster looks for companionship and sees friends, some of them from the Bloomsbury group who share his minorite proclivities and remain isolated  from society.  Many of these almost certainly gay friends eventually marry for self-protection.

Kailasa Cave #16, with its elephants, “seen in the last bloody rays of the sun.” It was excavated and built from the top down from a single piece of rock.

The first trip to India, during which time Masood has provided Forster with a guide, opens his eyes to spiritual and aesthetic feelings that he has not had in England.  From Buddhist caves and shrines which he sees from the back of an elephant, to the elaborate Humayan’s tomb (which resembles the Taj Mahal in design), and to the Barabar caves used by ascetics, Forster’s world opens, even as his time with Masood is scarce.  A meeting with the Maharajah of Chhatarpur at his palace and with the Rajah of Dewas expand his vision, one that is epitomized later in Ellora with his vision of the Kailasa cave “seen in the last bloody rays of the sun.”

Edward Carpenter and friends in front of Millthorpe Cottage, Sheffield. Carpenter lived openly with his male partner and challenged the mores of the day.

Back home again in England before leaving for Egypt, Forster sees Ted Streatfeild, Edward Carpenter (who lives openly with a man and refuses to hide his status), Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson (Goldie), Lytton Strachey, Alec Scudder, D. H. Lawrence, and others, names dropped into the novel and adding some color and atmosphere but little direct insight into the prevailing literary scene.  Only Leonard Woolf seems to have a direct involvement with Forster’s issues regarding his writing.  No matter where he is, India, Egypt, or England, Forster is seeking love, and when he finds it, the reader wants to cheer.  The novel, as a novel, is superb, with a main character who appears to open his life to the reader and share his feelings.  The descriptive scenes and the dialogue bring much of the exotic setting to life, though at times Forster’s travels have the flavor of a travelogue.  Still, few readers will be able to forget the agony that colors Forster’s life and the writing of his novels.

The Amritsar Massacre in which many hundreds of unarmed citizens engaging in a protest were killed by the British became a rallying point against British colonial rule in India in 1919.

Where I part company with many other reviewers is on a more abstract plane, beginning with the question of why the author wrote this novel in the first place.  While it is an excellent novel on all literary grounds, I am uncomfortable with the idea of one person, author Damon Galgut, presuming to “become” another person, E. M. Forster, and telling an audience all the intimate details of what Forster is feeling at any given moment -  from Forster’s point of view.  Though Forster kept a diary and wrote many letters, he chose not to reveal his inner conflicts publicly or in his own writing.  His novel Maurice, in which he wrote about same-sex love in England in 1913, revising it twice over the next fifty years, was left unpublished until after his death, and though it was published and eventually made into a film and a play, Forster himself uses characters named Maurice Hall and Alex Scudder, not E. M. Forster and his unnamed great love.  Perhaps it is my own sense of privacy which is offended by this seeming invasion of Forster’s own well deserved privacy  – and not because of the subject matter.  To me, this feels too much like the “celebrification” of a private person who has deliberately chosen to remain private during his own lifetime.

The fact that Galgut also publishes this novel under the title of  Arctic Summer, a novel which Forster himself never finished or published, suggests that he may actually see himself standing in Forster’s shoes as he publishes this book with its ironic title.  That’s a blurring (if not crossing) of the line between reality and fantasy which leaves me wondering about the future of “fictionalized” biographies, at least those in which the subject is identified throughout by a real, not fictionalized, name.  Ultimately, I wonder how much of an author’s life is “fair game” for biographical novels if the author himself chose to keep his own secrets unpublished.

Photos, in order: The author’s photo appears on http://www.dailymail.co.uk.

Forster with his friend Masood in India is shown on http://www.outlookindia.com/

The Kailasa Cave #16 is from http://www.world-mysteries.com/ “The Kailasa Cave #16  is a remarkable example of Dravidian architecture on account of its striking proportion, elaborate workmanship, architectural content, and sculptural ornamentation of rock-cut architecture. The temple was commissioned and completed between dated 757-783 CE.” (Wiki)  These cave constructions were created from the top down, excavated from ground level downward in the eighth century.

Edward Carpenter in front of Millthorpe Cottage, Sheffield, a place where he was comfortable living with his male partner in contravention of the conventional “wisdom” and encouraged others to do likewise. http://www.picturesheffield.com/

The Amritsar Massacre of 1919 became a rallying point against British colonialism when hundreds of unarmed civilians were killed by nervous British soldiers.  At the same time, a similar uprising was taking place in Alexandria, Egypt, presaging the end of colonial rule. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/

Deon Meyer–COBRA

Note: Deon Meyer’s Blood Safari was WINNER of the Afrikaans Language and Culture Association (AKTV) Best Suspense Fiction Prize of 2008, and his Thirteen Hours was WINNER of the same prize in 2009.

“Sir, you can suspend me or you can fire me, I don’t care…My father used to tell me stories of how he did not dare use his phone, because the security police were always listening.  He was part of the Struggle, Colonel.  Back…when everybody was spying on each other…Today it is happening again…Just like in apartheid times.” – Captain Mbali Kaleni.

Those who not have been lucky enough to have discovered South African author Deon Meyer’s mystery/thrillers, to date, are in for a real treat.  Always among the very best writers of this genre, he keeps getting better and better, but unlike many others who have suddenly become popular, he has not rested on any laurels.  Instead, he has become even more committed to constructing tight, beautifully organized and highly plausible plots in which well-developed characters share their lives in South Africa with all its challenges and triumphs.  Apartheid has been over for twenty years, and the scandal-plagued former police system has been replaced by a new South African Police Service (SAPS) in which blacks, whites, and coloreds – both men and women – work together as they face the growing pains associated with keeping their new democracy healthy and law-abiding.

In Cobra, Meyer’s new (ninth) novel, set primarily in Capetown, Capt. Benny Griessel appears in his fourth novel, and this time he and his Hawks, who work for Priority Crimes Investigations, must investigate three murders and the disappearance of a college professor who specializes in economics and computer systems which enable countries to monitor trends. The British professor has been staying at a wine farm and guest house in the Franschhoek Valley, and the three murdered men were professional bodyguards hired to protect him from some unknown threat.  Alternating with the story of these murders and questions about the professor’s work is the story of Tyrone Kleinbooi, a young “colored” pickpocket who works to pay for his sister’s college education so that she can become a doctor.  She thinks he is working as a commercial painter and has no idea of what he really is doing for her.  As cameras become ubiquitous throughout the high traffic areas which are usually a pickpocket’s best sources for the phones, wallets, and credit card, Tyrone finds himself struggling more and more to meet the tuition costs for his sister, and he is currently in arrears, looking for a big score.

The house and guest house for a winery, where Morris was staying in the Franchhoek Valley, may have resembled this.

Before long, however, the story lines increase in complexity, with the many different departments within the South African police system, all with their own agendas, being controlled by the state’s security apparatus, at the same time that the identity of “Morris” is being investigated and his involvement in world-wide (and lucrative) economic issues is being discovered.  All levels of government in South Africa, the US, the UK, and the European Union are at risk if the nature of his work is revealed publicly, and some of these countries are working overtime to protect their own interests and reputations.  Griessel and the Hawks are soon told to stop investigating this case on orders of the highest levels of South African government, and they powerfully resent this.

The Mozambican spitting cobra serves as the icon on the bullets used by Cobra.

The second plot line adds to these complications when the cold-blooded shooting of five police officers by unknown professional killers takes place when they arrest and try to book Tyrone, the pickpocket.   His escape in the chaos eventually ties the two plot lines together, since he has inadvertently acquired something that could mean life or death for himself and his sister.  Connecting everything is the engraving on each of the bullets used in the killings and kidnapping of “Morris” and on the bullets used later when Tyrone is arrested.  These killings and others in the Northern Hemisphere have been done by someone nicknamed Cobra because the image of a spitting cobra has been engraved on each bullet he has used.

Oom Samie se Winkel, an "old-fashioned store" popular with tourists, which Tyrone hopes will save him when he appears there as a pickpocket, proves to have better security than expected.

Despite the complexity of the story lines, which eventually overlap, Meyer is able to develop wonderful characters while keeping the reader totally engaged in the action.  Griessel, an alcoholic who has found love, which he is unable to express as strongly as he desires, is revealed as a sensitive man determined to avenge the deaths of his men and assuage the despair of their families because “we are all they have.”  In addition to the obvious hatred Griessel has for the killer or killers, “Something inside him revolted against the concept of a hit man with a trademark.  It was sociopathic, arrogant, it represented everything that was wrong with this world.  Everyone was obsessed with money, status, and fame,” and Griessel is determined to make things right.  His men and the ambitious female Captain Mbali Kaleni also reveal their inner lives, and Tyrone Kleinbooi, the pickpocket, will steal your heart as he works on behalf of his sister.

University at Stellenbosch, where Tyrone's sister Nadia is studying to become a doctor.

The action is fast, and the prose is so beautifully edited that there are no slow spots, not a single moment when the reader wishes that the novel were fifty or a hundred pages shorter.  The climax comes so fast and furiously that I challenge anyone to stop reading the last fifty pages before the end.

Meyer deserves a much wider audience.  He focuses on what he knows – the political, economic, and social tensions of a country undergoing major changes and the people committed to doing their part to keep the country moving in the “right” direction, despite all those who are willing to do what is expedient.  His view of a “hero” is realistic, not necessarily a person without flaws, but a person who genuinely believes that it is possible to make a difference and who is committed to making that difference, no matter the costs to him/her personally.  In this ninth novel, Meyer is still “fresh” for the reader, never relying to the trite or the tried and true, never resorting to what worked in an earlier novel, and never willing to take the easy way out by giving the reader what s/he expects. His novels are carefully considered, written, and produced, and they should serve as examples for some who are churning out bestsellers without attending to the details which great novels – even thrillers – require.

ALSO by Deon Meyer:  BLOOD SAFARI (2007), THIRTEEN HOURS (2009), TRACKERS (2010)

Photos, in order: The author’s photo appears on http://rotterdamweek.com/

The house in the Franchhoek Valley wine country where Morris stayed may have resembled this house: http://www.rhinoafrica.com

The Mozambican spitting cobra is shown on http://tarakb.blogspot.com/

Oom Samie se Winkel, an old-fashioned store popular with tourists, proves to have better security than Tyrone was expecting. http://tracks4africa.co.za/

The University at Stellenbosch, outside of Capetown, is where Nadia, Tyrone’s sister is studying to be a doctor. http://edabroad.uncc.edu/

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