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Note: Antonio Munoz Molina is twice WINNER of Spain’s National Narrative Prize, and WINNER of Spain’s Premio Planteta de Novela, the most valuable literary prize in the world, after the Nobel Prize for Literature.  He is also a FULL MEMBER of the Royal Spanish Academy and RECIPIENT of the Prince of Asturias Award for Literature.

“The woman who was not Blanca came down the hall toward Mario wearing Blanca’s green silk blouse, Blanca’s jeans, and Blanca’s ballet flats, her eyes narrowing into a smile as she reached him – eyes the same color and shape as Blanca’s but not Blanca’s eyes.  She welcomed him home in a tone so identical to Blanca’s that it was almost as if she really were Blanca.”

Antonio Munoz Molina, one of Spain’s premier writers, shows his intense psychological and atmospheric style in this short novel, a perfect introduction to this author for anyone who has not already read A Manuscript of Ashes, or any of Munoz Molina’s other works.  In the latter, longer novel, the author’s scope is that of the Spanish Civil War, the people it absorbed, and the subsequent dictatorship of Generalissimo Francisco Franco.  The present novel (which some will consider a novella),  is of a much more limited scope – the life and love of Mario Lopez, an undistinguished worker in the city of Jaen, halfway between Madrid and the south coast of Spain.  Mario, almost anonymous in his profession – a draftsman, rather than the architect he would like to beis someone his wife Blanca considers a bureaucrat.  She has, in the past, accused him of “settling for too little, of lacking the slightest ambition,” to which Mario has replied that “she, Blanca, was his greatest ambition, and that when he was with her he wouldn’t and couldn’t feel the slightest ambition for anything more.”

As this novel opens, something has obviously happened in the marriage of Mario Lopez, the protagonist in his thirties, and his wife Blanca, a woman who, on the surface, appears to have little in common with her husband.  Munoz Molina, famed for his kaleidoscopic narratives which burst the limitations of chronology, creates a story that swirls back and forth and all around as he recreates the courtship, the early years, and the current crisis in the six-year marriage of these two people – Blanca, the sometimes confused, arts-oriented daughter of a well-to-do family from Jaen, and Mario, the insecure son of a rural family who has no familiarity or comfort with the expected (and socially rewarded) behaviors of those whose social level is based on the financial success of their ancestors.  How he and Blanca ended up married is one of the mysteries of the novel that develops as the action proceeds in its roundabout way through time and flashbacks. Throughout, Mario reveals his love for Blanca, the only woman who has ever fully captured his heart – but someone he can no longer recognize as the novel opens.

Self portrait by Frida Kahlo. Blanca was particularly enchanted by Kahlo's paintings. Photo: Banco de Mexico Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust

Mario, the reader learns, had originally met and come to know Blanca at a particularly vulnerable time in her life.  Someone who has always kept a journal of her life, Blanca became involved as a younger woman with a painter named Jaime Naranjo, also known popularly as “Jimmy N,” ten years older than she, and through him she was also exposed to contemporary opera, theater, art – and alcohol and drugs.  Though none of these are major interests of Mario, he has eventually come to appreciate the feelings she experiences from  music.  On her twenty-ninth birthday, Mario gives her a recording of Moncho singing “Llevatela – Take her Away,” a bolero which “intensely ennobled anything that she admired,” leading to a particularly poignant moment for the couple.

As Blanca’s background unfolds further through the back and forth action, she tells Mario,  “You rebuilt me. As if you’d found a porcelain vase that was smashed into a thousand pieces, and you had the skill and patience to reconstruct the whole thing, down to the tiniest shard.”

Jessye Norman, one of Blanca's favorite opera singers, can reduce Blanca to tears. Mario does not enjoy opera at all.

Blanca had been at the point of drifting into chaos during her relationship with Naranjo, but she had helped Naranjo become a success as an artist, helping him to win prizes but become a caricature of himself, socially and artistically. Her arrival at Naranjo’s apartment a day ahead of her expected time, however,  reveals Naranjo’s limitations to her, and Mario just happens to be present when she crashes publicly soon after that.  Mario’s own engagement to a woman for seven years, and his discovery that he really does not know her at all, make him particularly sympathetic to Blanca’s neediness when they eventually connect.  Though she is from an elite family and he is not, they find comfort with each other, on some level, at least, until an event leads Mario to feel, after their six years of marriage, that he can no longer recognize her – or himself.

The conceit of Mario thinking that the Blanca who is in his apartment is a fraud, which repeats throughout the novel, becomes understandable as the novel moves back and forth in time, and the way that Mario and Blanca eventually come to terms with their relationship is both unusual and memorable.  Though this is a short novel, its style is appropriate to its length, and the limited point of view allows the reader to draw thematic conclusions which have meaning and importance.  Whether either character has an epiphany or a major moment of sudden insight is less important here than the fact that both come to some new knowledge of themselves and each other, however limited.  And when the night arrives in which Mario realizes he may be able to understand the “woman who was not Blanca,” the reader realizes how and why he does this and what it means for the future.

The playing of “Llevatela,” a bolero by Moncho, proves to be a significant moment of communication between Blanca and Mario.

Note: Also by Antonio Munoz Molina: A MANUSCRIPT OF ASHES

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

The Frida Kahlo self portrait is from the Banco de Mexico Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust.  http://arte.laguia2000.com

Jessye Norman, one of the opera singers who can reduce Blanca to tears, is shown here:  http://www.operatoday.com A video of her singing Ave Maria may be seen here:  https://www.youtube.com

ARC:  Other Press

Note: Gerard Woodward was SHORTLISTED for the Whitbread Award for August in 2001 and SHORTLISTED for the Booker Prize for I’ll Go To Bed at Noon in 2004.

“I suffered with a vision…of my mother and father standing on the lawn before Swan’s Rest, in the shade of the walnut tree.  But it is not the house that crumbles.  It is them.  They fall apart slowly before my eyes, as if they are made of sandstone.  Small cracks appear across their bodies, which widen until large fissures open up, then pieces fall away, and there is nothing left of husband and wife but a little heap of dust.”

Despite his shortlisting for the Whitbread Award for August (2001), the first of his trilogy about the Aldous Jones family, and his Booker shortlisting for I’ll Go to Bed at Noon (2004), the second book, British author  Gerard Woodward’s novels remain almost unknown to readers in the United States.  A Curious Earth (2007), my own favorite, completes the trilogy, set during the 1970s and 1980s.  With his poetic vision and his wickedly wry humor, Woodward creates in these three novels a picture of the lives of ordinary but often dysfunctional people trying to find some sort of resolution to the conflicts in their lives.  His dark humor and irony, combined with a poet’s understanding of the vicissitudes of life, make his novels both insightful and compassionate.

In this new, stand-alone novel, Vanishing, Woodward dramatically expands his scope and broadens his themes while narrowing his narrative focus to one main character whose life the reader follows from childhood through his arrest for espionage in the late days of World War II.

Kenneth Brill, the main character, is in a military prison in an unidentified location as the novel opens, feigning sleep as Davies, his interrogator from the Air Ministry, arrives to interview him in preparation for his trial for espionage. Brill emphasizes that he has served with honor during the war and has been almost single-handedly responsible for the camouflaging of the British airbase at El Alamein in order to protect it from Nazi bombs.  His background as a former art student from the Slade, one of the best art schools in the world, had helped him create a “stage set” of a similar base in the North African desert, attracting Nazi bombers away from the real base in Egypt, near Libya.  As the novel opens, however, Brill has been caught painting a large number of landscapes of the farm area where he grew up, a few miles outside of London.   While a reader might find this a seemingly innocent activity for someone who has been recovering from a gunshot wound for months, Davies quickly disabuses him. The farm area in the Heath, which Brill’s family has farmed for generations, is “shortly to become one of the biggest military air bases in Europe. That land has all been requisitioned by the Air Ministry” for a new aerodrome at “Heathrow.”  Evidence from Brill’s past suggests to the Air Ministry that he may be using the paintings to send coded messages to the Nazis.

"Avenue at Middelharnis" by Meindert Hobbema (1638 - 1709), a Dutch artist whose work Brill thinks resembles the landscapes of the Heath where he grew up.

Within a few more pages, Davies lets Brill know that he is completely familiar with the rest of Brill’s “record” – “arrested in London in 1937, and charged with giving false information to the police.  And again in 1939 – for an act of trespass in a royal household, the Palace, no less.”  Like his father, who enjoyed doing conjuring tricks, Brill is an expert at making things (and sometimes people) disappear, and Davies accuses him of  having an “unstickable,” even slippery, quality, having been expelled from a series of schools as both a student and a teacher.  During the war, Brill was wounded and spent nine months in the hospital in Alexandria, then was moved to a sanatorium in Palestine, then spent six months recuperating in Oxfordshire before being invalided home.  He was never in any one place for very long.  As for his injuries, he was once impaled on a sword, and Davies questions him about that and about how he happened to be shot, presumably in battle – two days before the actual battle began.  His whole life seems to have been a series of “vanishings,” through disguise, camouflage, costuming, or staged events, and Davies now wants the whole story.

Brill believes that the Slade has given him insights into art and life which he would not have achieved elsewhere and which he may apply to his life after school.

The “whole story” evolves through a series of complex flashbacks which may be the real story of Brill (or may not be) from his childhood to the start of his trial.  By toggling the scenes back and forth among several different places and times, Woodward keeps the suspense about Brill high while also developing aspects of his themes.  Several of Brill’s friends vanish for periods of time, buildings and landscapes vanish during the war, and some of Brill’s own carefully constructed self-images crumble.  His sexuality is called into question, and the scope broadens as his friends expose him to people and ideas which he is unprepared to evaluate with any kind of intellectual skill or interest.   He “floats,” moving from place to place making no reasoned commitment on any level, an almost ghostly character who himself seems to vanish into the scenery.  Gradually, the reader learns more about the charges against Brill, most of which seem be the result of his not paying attention to events, not being engaged, and not thinking beyond the moment.

When Brill arrives at Halfaya Pass, overlooking Sollum Bay, he has just seen the charred remains of corpses in the sand. "The clothes had vanished, or become one with the body." However, "The view from the top was exquisite."

Woodward’s structure of flashbacks through the many different phases of Brill’s life makes this novel work.  Had he simply presented Brill’s background in straight chronological order, there would have been little or no mystery about Brill himself, and the reader might have tired of Brill’s lack of engagement with the forces at play in his life.  War as a series of “vanishings” gives a new slant to that well-worn subject, however horrific it may be, and a big picture emerges for the reader, even as it eludes Brill’s own grasp.  His unreliability as a narrator can be both frustrating and annoying, yet he emerges as a character for whom one feels a certain amount of sympathy.  At one point, he sums up his experience in North Africa:  “What seemed to be the most useful role for camouflage in the desert was not so much the concealment of what existed, but the display of that which didn’t exist,” and one cannot help but see how much that statement reveals about Brill himself, a virtual ghost.

The 99th annual ploughing match held on the Heath where Brill grew up, was held in 1937. This took place on the site of what became the northern runway of Heathrow Aerodrome a few years later.

As the narrative unfolds, Woodward incorporates some dark humor and ironies, though these are milder, less outrageous than what are found in his earlier books, especially A Curious Earth.  His father’s rise to prominence in the community as an entrepreneur of sludgecakes is one such example of obvious, dark humor, as are Brill’s stabbing with a sword and the ironies on a grand scale which one sees in the conclusion.  Ultimately, the novel trades the intensity and surprises of his shorter novels for the broader scope of the narrative and themes here, making this novel more panoramic and more fully developed but less wildly eccentric.


Photos, in order: The author’s photo is from http://www.theguardian.com

Hobbema’s picture of “Avenue at MIddelharnis”  is shwon on http://en.wikipedia.org. Brill felt that Hobbema captured the spirit of the Heath in his paintings from the early 1700s of Holland.

Brill believes that the Slade, one of the most important art schools in the world,  has given him insights into art and life which he would not have achieved elsewhere and which he may apply to his life after school http://www.victorianweb.org/

When Brill and his cohorts arrive at Halfaya Pass, they have just seen the horrors of an earlier battle, in which  the corpses are charred, their clothing gone.  http://www.ibiblio.org/

The 99th annual ploughing match held on the Heath where Brill grew up, was held in 1937. This was held on the site of what became the northern runway of Heathrow Aerodrome a few years later.  http://www.getwestlondon.co.uk/

Upon holding Lucy, the pilgrim hawk, for the first time, Alwyn Tower declares that “I felt rather as if I had a great thought of death concentrated and embodied and perched on me.  Whatever had possessed me, I wondered to think of this Lucy – bloodthirsty brute with a face like a gouge, feet like two sets of dirty scalpels – as significant of love?  Perhaps those two things, imaginary death and hopeless desire, always lie close together in one’s mind, foolishly interchangeable.”

For those who have read the recent prizewinner H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald, the powerful, genre-bending memoir of the author’s decision to tame and train a fierce goshawk as a way to deal with her grief following her father’s death, this novel by Glenway Wescott (1901 – 1987) may feel more civilized and stylistically much tamer.  This is by no means a criticism of this marvelous book.  The Pilgrim Hawk, a thoughtful, often symbolic novel, deals with much more than a woman’s relationship with a wild hawk and the agonizing search for herself which we see with the Helen MacDonald book.  The pilgrim hawk here serves instead as the impetus to the action, and she is only one of several “characters” who participate in a broad examination of love and passion, and love’s closely related effects involving pain, pettiness, anger, self-doubt, and, in an ideal world, forgiveness.  Ultimately, The Pilgrim Hawk considers the grandest theme of all – the relationship of love to personal freedom and whether it is possible to have one without the other, a theme for which the hawk becomes a foil.  Regarded by critics as one of the best short novels of the twentieth century, The Pilgrim Hawk has been compared to William Faulkner’s The Bear in its importance, though the foreign setting, the well-to-do American characters, and the visiting Irish gentry mitigate the raw realities of Faulkner’s masterpiece in favor of a more mannered, more continental approach.

First published in 1940 and recently republished as a New York Review Book Classic, The Pilgrim Hawk takes place in a French country estate in the 1920s, as American Alwyn Tower, the young expatriate who narrates the novel, is visiting Alexandra Henry, in her late twenties, whose American family owns the estate.  The action takes place during one day and begins when a wealthy Irish couple, Larry and Madeleine Cullen, arrive at the estate with their chauffeur and with Madeleine’s latest passion, a young pilgrim hawk (peregrine falcon) named Lucy, who clings to Madeleine’s leather-clad arm and who is completely dependent upon her for food – and life.  Hooded and unable to see what is happening around her when she is at rest, Lucy, however fierce she may appear to be, is then helpless, her awesome hunting skills controlled by Madeleine who decides what she may see, what she may eat, and where she may fly.  The action of the novel becomes much like the “closed room” action of a traditional mystery story, in that all the characters and the action are confined to one limited location, which raises the suspense and the tension as “crimes” occur.  Here the “crimes” that occur are psychic, but as the love themes and their associated tensions evolve, the reader realizes that all the character are dealing with similar issues and that Lucy, the pilgrim hawk, is the only “character” who is emotionally unencumbered by the past.

Peregrine Falcon. Photo by Barbara Loucks, DEC

Gradually, the reader comes to know Madeleine Cullen, the Irish “owner” of the hawk and wife of Larry.  Madeleine and Larry have serious problems at the heart of their relationship, one of them being Larry’s excessive drinking.  Madeleine is also a supporter of the “radical” Irish freedom movement, which has recently resulted in the expulsion of the Anglo-Irish from the rule of Ireland, and she is active in liberal causes there.  Larry, however, supports whatever is necessary to keep Madeleine happy.  It comes as no surprise when Larry eventually becomes jealous of Lucy and the time Madeleine spends with her, especially when Lucy sleeps in their bedroom.  Running parallel with this thread, is that of Alexandra’s servants, the mature Jean and much younger Eva, whose relationship is threatened by the arrival of Ricketts, the Cullens’ chauffeur.

Falcon with hood to keep it from flying away or becoming excited by what it sees.

As the novel develops, the plight of Lucy and her kind also unfolds, adding new dimensions to the novel’s themes of love and death and freedom and power, and the interrelationships of all these big ideas.  The death toll for hawks in the first year of life is astronomical.  In addition, hawks do not mate in captivity, so every hawk used for hunting purposes, like Lucy, is a hawk that has been captured and forced to live without a mate.  In some ways, these captured hawks are better off than those in the wild, since their chances of dying from starvation are much less, though they are essentially powerless in their captive world.  As Alwyn Tower comments, “I felt a little indignation on Lucy’s account.  Trapped out of the real wind and rock, and perverted rather than domesticated, kept blind and childish, at the mercy of every human absurdity, vodka and automobiles, guns and kisses: poor Lucy!”

In a clean, succinct style, Wescott manages to convey not only complex psychological issues but grand and well integrated themes in relatively few pages.  He keeps his reader off guard as he develops twists in the plot line which run counter to what has been expected and shows how little some of the characters understand about life and themselves.  Ultimately, it is Lucy who is the one who most lives up to character, and it is in the descriptions of her behavior in which the author’s style most reveals itself.  At one point, Lucy is eating half a pigeon which Mrs. Cullen has had prepared for her:  “Lucy paused and raised her weird face between mouthfuls…there was no histrionic angry temper, no showing off.  Thoroughly and slowly it went on to the end, with meditation upon every feather, every crumb of meat, and every sip of blood – sacramental.”

Imogen Davis holds Rufus, a Harris hawk, at Wimbledon, where it scares away the pigeons during matches. Photo by Heathcliff O'Malley. Double click here for the story.

Shortly after the Cullens drive off, Mrs. Cullen makes an emergency return to the house – she is on a mission which will lead to a climax and a dramatic conclusion about her on-going relationship with her husband Larry.  As the novel winds down, conclusions regarding the other lovers in the novel also become clear.  “Unrequited passion; romance put asunder by circumstances or mistakes; sexuality pretending to be love – all that is a matter of little consequence, a mere voluntary temporary uneasiness, compared with the long course of true love, especially marriage…When love has given satisfaction, then you discover how large a part of the rest of life is only payment for it, installment after installment.”

Photos, in order: The photo of Glenway Wescott is from the Bienecke Library at Yale:  http://beinecke.library.yale.edu/

The Pilgrim Hawk, identified as Falco peregrinus, is shown on http://www.dec.ny.gov/ Photo by Barbara Loucks, DEC

Falcon wearing a hood to keep it from becoming excited or flying away:  https://ashlijewelers.wordpress.com/

Wimbledon employs a Harris hawk to keep the pigeons away from the pristine grass courts during matches.  The story of Rufus, the Wimbledon hawk, is told here:  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/ Photo by Heathcliff O’Malley.    Imogen Davis is handling the hawk.

Per Petterson–I REFUSE

Note: Per Petterson was WINNER of the International IMPAC Dublin Award for his novel Out Stealing Horses in 2007.  He was WINNER of the Nordic Council Literature Award and the Brage Prize for I Curse the River of Time in 2009.  This is his first novel in five years.

“Your conscience is like a cogwheel, or even like a circular saw, whirring round, and its sharp teeth are biting into your soul, hurting like hell and each time you do something really bad your blood is spurting, but then you do more and more bad things and the teeth are ground down and your soul becomes calloused and then you don’t feel anything when the wheel goes round and then that’s who you are.” Tommy to Jim after a crisis.

I Refuse is, I believe, Norwegian author Per Petterson’s most powerful – even overwhelming – novel yet, a novel which, even now, three days after I finished reading it, still has hold of my heart and still echoes in my memories throughout the day. I have read and reread passages just to be sure that they really do happen the way I thought they did, hoping that if I could just reread them one more time with a new vision that maybe I could keep the sad inevitabilities from happening in quite the same way, this time around. A novel about hardy and determined folk who live in Norway, I Refuse is so full of stark reality and so sensitive in its depictions of the way this reality affects the characters who live there, that I suspect I am not the only one who will go back again and again to reread passages. For Petterson, the inevitabilities of someone’s life journey are nowhere nearly as important as the journey itself, no matter how difficult, or how bleak, or how disappointing the outcomes on a personal level. Ultimately, the novel creates a world in which ordinary people keep on trying, even as they often fail. Ironies abound as the main characters are often tossed around wildly by the vicissitudes of fate – unexpected and uncontrollable twists and turns that affect their lives. Somehow they continue on, and even if they do not always make peace with their destinies or their decisions, their strengths lie in the belief that they have still had some level of control.

Petterson begins the novel in 2006, as Jim, a man in his fifties who never knew his father, almost runs over an old man while driving through a snowstorm in the early morning hours. He wonders if the old man, who is uninjured, could have been his unknown father, a motif which echoes throughout. Jim is on his way to the suspension bridge that connects the island of Ulvoya to the mainland, a few miles south of Oslo. He fishes from the bridge a few times a week in the semi-darkness just before dawn, a peaceful activity for a man who must remember to “take his pills.” He resents the “classy cars” which have just begun crossing the bridge as dawn breaks, and he is shocked when someone in a new Mercedes stops and says, unexpectedly, “It’s Jim, isn’t it?” The speaker is Tommy Berggren, his dearest friend from childhood, with whom he has had virtually no contact for about thirty years, a man who now looks “like Jon Voight in Enemy of the State,” but who miraculously recognizes him from the crowd.

Bridge between Ulvoya and the mainland, where Jim enjoys fishing a couple of times a week and where he meets Tommy unexpectedly.

As the present lives of jobless Jim, who lives on Social Security and has been hospitalized for emotional problems, and Tommy Berggren, a highly successful businessman, are revealed through flashbacks told through several different points of view, the reader feels the dramatic contrasts in the men’s lives. “Isn’t it strange,” Tommy says, off-handedly, “The way things can turn out. The opposite.” Jim understands that Tommy probably did not make this remark to be hurtful, but Tommy then wants to know if he is fishing because he “needs the fish…for eating…Because if you did, I could help you.” Even Tommy realizes he has gone too far with this remark, however, and apologizes. As Tommy leaves, casually indicating that he hopes to see Jim again, Jim, by contrast, is overcome. “I fell to my knees and wrapped my arms tight around my body,” he says, “and tried to breathe slowly, but I couldn’t do it…I held my mouth wide open, the noise wasn’t as loud then and the air flowed easier in and out.”

Jim comments that Tommy, after thirty years, now looks like Jon Voight, an NSA murderer in the film of The Enemy of the State.

As the book relives events, the reader comes to know Jim, who grew up as the only child of a protective single mother – a teacher and Christian leading an honorable and hard-working life. Tommy’s family could not have been more different. His mother left the family when Tommy was twelve, his sister Siri was fourteen, and his little twin sisters were four. His father, a drunk, was abusive in the time that followed, severely beating and kicking the children without letup – until a day two years later, when Tommy was big enough to attack his father viciously during a fight, breaking his father’s leg, and receiving terrible wounds himself. His father disappears, and the family falls apart, the children assigned to live with people from the community who provide them with the only homes they have ever known.

Cover, John Steinbeck's The Moon is Down, given to Jonsen by Tommy. This was the most successful propaganda novel ever written, one which inspired Norwegians all over the country to resist the German occupation.

The novel operates on many levels at once, but Petterson never loses sight of his major themes, all associated with one’s values and the actions they inspire – or prevent – over time. For some, the value lies in the refusal to do something, and for others it is in the refusal to believe something. For still others it is the refusal to admit something, while for the rest it is the refusal to accept something. Petterson has carefully crafted this novel, his talent seen even in what would appear to be casual  “throwaways,” details of plot and setting one would not usually notice unless looking for them. When Tommy’s guardian Jonsen is dying in hospital, for example, Tommy decides to bring him a book from his own seemingly random assortment of old books – John Steinbeck’s The Moon is Down, about a small Norwegian community which refuses to accept the occupation of their town by the Germans during World War II, a banned book which inspired whole communities to stand up to the Nazis. There are special reasons why this is an appropriate choice for Jonsen.  When Tommy is at a shopping mall late in the novel, he mentions that his favorite author is Raymond Chandler and his hero Philip Marlowe, whose series of hard-boiled realistic crime novels features characters much like Tommy himself.

The sensitive Jim, by contrast, is a fan of Georges Simenon’s Maigret, a man who uses his psychological acumen to solve cases.  Later, as Tommy is leaving a mall, he sees the name of a restaurant which he has visited – Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – an ironic and not inappropriate title for two former friends who have traded places between the time they are children and the time they are adult. The ironies and the insights that arise from these details broaden the themes and make them even more relevant. The conclusion, in which Tommy’s older sister Siri visits Singapore and discovers something about a family member, is a stunning conclusion to this novel. Why she does what she does after that opens the door to much speculation – and a resolution which is one of the most awesome aspects of this profound and unforgettable novel.

Note: Translated by famed translator of Scandinavian literature Don Bartlett, this novel feels letter perfect, it’s mood, thematic unity, and powerful effects perfectly in keeping with what the author must have hoped for.

The Norwegian Seamen's Church in Singapore, where Tommy's sister Siri has an encounter which gives a whole new meaning to the expression, "I refuse."


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

The bridge between Ulvoya and the mainland, a few miles from Oslo,  is where Tommy met Jim while he was fishing, thirty years after they had last seen each other. http://www.nurkiewicz.com/

In one of the many ironies in this book, Jim thinks Tommy looks like Jon Voight in The Enemy of the State.   Voight plays an NSA official and cold-blooded murderer in that film.  http://www.denofgeek.com

The Norwegian Seamen’s Church in Singapore, where Siri learns something about a family member during the climax of the book, is “at the summit of the steepest hill in Singapore with a view of the container harbour, which was one of the biggest in the world.”  https://www.sjomannskirken.no/

ARC: Graywolf Press

“He would come to be called the Gravedigger. There would be other names: the Master Executioner, the Jackfruit Freak, the great Sooryamangalam Sreeganeshan. In his earliest days, his name was a sound only his kin could make in the hollows of their throats…and [he] hadn’t yet learned all there was to learn. His trunk…couldn’t sense what his mother’s could sense – the sudden stillness in the rhythm of things, the peril in the air.”

In this stylistically daring look at the devastating ivory trade in India, author Tania James provides a broad look at all the factors involved in this gory business while keeping her focus on the individual, the small, the personal. To develop her broad message within a manageable focus, she creates three unique stories which evolve simultaneously – the third-person story of the Gravedigger, a lone elephant without a herd and without the grounding in elephant lore which young elephants need to survive; the story of the Poacher, involved in the lucrative ivory trade, told by his younger brother Manu, who is naïve regarding his brother’s motivations; and the story of the Film-maker, in which cinematographer Emma Lewis describes her efforts to document the work of Dr. Ravi Varma, the head veterinarian of the Kavanar Wildlife Park, who works to rescue and rehabilitate orphaned elephant calves. The three separate points of view provide unusual depth to the examination of poaching without leading to didacticism and preachiness. By rotating the focus among these points of view, the author keeps the suspense high, constantly adding new information to each individual story while leaving other mysteries about the Gravedigger, the Poacher, and the Film-maker undeveloped till the end.

As a young elephant, the Gravedigger walks with his herd along the traditional woodland trails which India’s Forest Department will eventually cut into foot trails of their own. His mother has recently had another calf, and his own protected place, under her belly, is now occupied by a new baby, leaving him with only a tail to grab onto when he needs her. The herd includes an old tusker and a twelve-year-old whose tusks are only beginning – just stumps, at this point. Their understanding of poaching is already so ingrained in their cultural experience that whenever they scent a man in the forest, the cows crowd around the two tuskers, their rumps facing outward to protect the tuskers from harm. On one day when the wind is not strong enough to carry the scent, this small herd is attacked, and the elephant who becomes the Gravedigger is suddenly orphaned.

A chain tree by D. Nambiar. Early in the novel, the author presents the legend of a boy who guided a British engineer who was cutting a road through the mountains. The man later shot his young guide, whose restless spirit took residence in a banyan tree. Only when the tree was wrapped in chains was the boy's spirit contained, leading to the naming of the Chain Tree. Here the chains are visible in front of the niche.

Manu, the brother of the Poacher, the second point of view, is a young teen as these narrative sections begin, and he and his young cousin Raghu, sometimes stay overnight in the palli, a primitive hut on stilts in their rice field, which overlooks the Kavanar Wildlife Park where the Gravedigger lives. Their job is to keep an eye on the field during the night and to send up an alarm if an elephant threatens it. Raghu is particularly interested in the stories he has heard about Dr. Ravi Varma, the veterinarian at the nearby wildlife park, who is said to have successfully reintroduced a calf to its mother in such a way that the elephant took her calf back, an almost unheard of success. One night, however, when Manu is supposed to stay in the palli with Raghu, Manu is exhausted, having worked in the fields all day. Not incidentally, he also has a girlfriend. When he fails to show up that night, disaster results. Manu rightly blames himself for the outcome, so he feels obligated when his uncle, Raghu’s father, offers the compensation he will get from the Forest Department if Manu and his brother Jayan, recently released from prison, will kill the elephant who attacked Raghu.

A palli in a rice field.

The point of view of Emma Lewis, the Film-maker, conveys some of the economic complications which inspire a group of the villagers who live near the wildlife center to resort to poaching. The Forest Department has subsidized a private timber company and given permission for them to cut timber on lands the villagers have been using for years, and they are enraged. These lands have officially belonged to the Forest Department ever since they were “inherited from the British Raj, who had previously claimed all forestlands for the queen,” but the villagers have been harvesting firewood and honey there “long before Queen Victoria was in diapers.” The tension is high and the attitude toward the Forest Department is at a low. To add to the complications, an unnecessary and distracting love story takes the emphasis off the real issues in these Film-maker sections (though it makes the characters feel a bit more human).

"Elephant Graveyard," painted by John Seerey-Lester. Reprinted by permission of the artist. See photo credits for further information.

Each of these stories continues to develop during the novel, adding new information gradually and not necessarily in chronological order. Working for the Old Man who has trained him after his mother’s death, The Gravedigger is in chains twice a day when he must perform for tourists, though he escapes every night in his dreams. Fascinating stories of elephant lore, such as how the elephant got its tusks, and how a boy turned into an elephant emerge, add depth to the novel, and the vision of the elephant graveyard becomes a major symbol. Eventually, the Gravedigger endures torture by one of his keepers, whose behavior recalls some of the Gravedigger’s still vividly traumatic childhood memories, and the novel works its way to its climax. Beautiful passages of natural beauty contrast with descriptions of the horrors of human contact to bring the novel to its conclusion.

A Flamboyant Gulmohar tree stands guard outside the Range Forest Office. In the US this is called a Royal Poinciana tree.

Author Tania James walks a fine line here as she develops a story filled with unexpected twists and turns. She wisely avoids the problems of trying to recreate an elephant’s point of view by telling the elephant’s story in the third person and in short paragraphs of realistic detail. Brief sentences in a straightforward subject-verb-object sentence pattern reflect the point of view of an objective observer who is young – like the elephant – but the observations are trenchant, crucial to the development of the novel. The Poacher sections reflect both the thoughts of Manu, the younger brother of Jayan, and Manu’s innocence of what older brother Jayan has been doing, which makes Jayan’s behavior a personal betrayal. The Film-maker sections present narrative commentary and provide transitions among the various points of view in the total story. This is an imaginative presentation of the issue of poaching and ivory sales and the damage done to the environment and its integrity for all species, both human and animal.

Photo credits: The author’s photo appears on http://indulge.newindianexpress.com

A chain tree by D. Nambiar.  Early in the novel, the author presents the legend of a boy who guided a British engineer who was cutting a road through the mountains. The man later shot his young guide, whose restless spirit took residence in a banyan tree. Only when the tree was wrapped in chains was the boy’s spirit contained, leading to the naming of the Chain Tree. Here the chains are visible in front of the niche.  See http://www.dnambiartravelblog.com/

A palli in a rice field:  http://en.wikipedia.org/

“Elephant Graveyard,” painted by John Seerey-Lester.  Reprinted by permission of the artist, whose website and contact information are  located here:  www.seereylester.com

A Flamboyant Gulmohar tree, known in the US as a Royal Poinciana Tree, “stands guard” outside the Range Forest Office.  http://www.pbase.com/neuenhofer

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