Sunday, August 3, 2014

My Log 434 August 3 2014: Three weighty novels by diverse international authors, each with a global readership

Orhan Pamuk, turkish novelist. The photo is de...
Orhan Pamuk, turkish novelist. The photo is declared copyright-free on Pamuk's official website. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Japanese writer Haruki Murakami
Japanese writer Haruki Murakami (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Cover of "Kafka on the Shore"
Cover of Kafka on the Shore
Cover of "The Museum of Innocence"
Cover of The Museum of Innocence

I have read many novels in the last few months, some of them memorable. The last one I wrote about in this space was The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, by Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami. So today I want to reflect on three more remarkable works, another by Murakami called Kafka On the Shore,  an historical but fictional recreation of the life of Cicero called Imperium, by English writer Robert Harris, and the extraordinary, almost unclassifiable Turkish novel The Museum of Innocence, by Orhan Pamuk.
The meaning of the Japanese and Turkish novels is fairly obscure, but that has not prevented their being translated into 60 languages (selling 11 million copies), in the case of Murakami, 50 languages in the case of Pamuk, while at least one of Harris’s books has been translated into 25 languages.
So there seems little doubt that works that are mysterious and complex as to their meaning are meeting a ready audience around the world.
I will try to elaborate these mysteries without giving too much away of the plots of the books. Kafka on the Shore is about a 15-year-old boy who decides to run away from the home he has shared with his father, a famous sculptor, to go in search of his missing mother and sister.  On leaving home the boy decides to call himself Kafka. After a series of adventures he takes refuge in a  quiet private library in the north of the country, which is presided over by an aloof, beautiful woman, whom he begins to fantasize could be his mother. There is a suggestion that the boy has entered a sort of third dimension of life, because the woman who is the object of his interest is able to appear to him each day as she was when she was 15.
A parallel story, however, also keeps pulsing through the book. That is the story of an old  man called Nakata who, as is established in the first pages, was one of 16 children who during a school expedition undertaken into a forest during the war, were overcome by a mysterious something or other that resulted in them all losing consciousness. All but one of them recovered quickly, and an investigation by the US military was able to come to no conclusion as to what caused the incident. Nakata was the boy who took time to recover, and when he did he was stripped of all memory and most of the human feelings with which we grow into manhood. He finds it difficult to communicate with humans, but has a unique ability to converse with cats. Because of this he is employed by a family of his acquaintance to search for their missing cat.  He is directed on his search by a cat, but this direction has tragic results, and thereafter he is convinced that he can only be saved if he finds what he calls the Entrance Stone.  When he finds it, this stone has he capacity to change its weight, to become immovable at certain times, and easily moved at others: so throughout this strange tale we could be said to be in the realm of magic. This is not something that would normally appeal to me, but the story is written in such a lively manner, the incidents recounted are so interesting, and the characters, though not normal beings, are so fascinating that I had no difficulty in reading to the end of this 600 page book.
As to its meaning, I will have to leave you with what Murakami himself suggests, that there are a number of hidden riddles in the text which it is the challenge fo the reader to solve. Personally I did not spot them. But again, I should emphasize that this writer has a devoted audience of millions of readers all around the world.
I have just finished reading another huge epic, the 530 page novel The Museum of Innocence by Pamuk. I confess this was tougher going, because of its strange structure. It is the chronicle of an obsession, perhaps we could call it a lifelong infatuation held by a 30 year old wealthy Turkish businessman for a 17-year-old, beautiful shopgirl, called Fusun.  He succeeds (without too much trouble) in seducing her and they live 44 days of joyous sex, which ends on the day of his long-planned engagement party to a beautiful and sympathetic fiancee.  His paramour agrees to come to visit him at two pm as usual after the engagement party, but she doesn’t show up plunging him into a life so obsessively dominated by his search for her that, towards the end of the book, one of his friends says he is “not quite right in the head”, a judgment with which I would have to agree.
When the girl does reappear, she is married to a young man whom the hero (if I may use that description) immediately befriends, promising to finance him in making a film in which his wife, Fusun, should be the star.
He dangles his promise before them, and even before he sees that the young husband is not particularly attentive to his wife, he uses the situation to begin showing up at the girl’s home as often as four, sometimes five times a week. She favours him only with the occasional warm glance, but makes it clear she has no interest in resuming their previous relationship. Nevertheless he carries on these visits for eight years, neglecting his business and feeding his obsession to such a degree that he begins to collect everything the girl has touched. For example, he collects 4200 cigarette butts he has snaffled after she has butted them out, he has countless glasses bearing her lipstick, olive pits she has discarded on a side plate, and so on. Over the years he secretly collects every imaginable object, and replaces it with a new one, or a similar one, the next day. These are the objects which, after his paramour’s death, he decides to include in his promised Museum of Innocence.
It is the description of these eight years of his servitude to this young woman that eventually becomes rather wearing at least for this reader. For example, in describing his evenings with the family, he has one chapter of several pages in which every one of 133 sentences begins with the word “sometimes”, the rest of the sentence describing a different action, or inaction.
I suppose what kept one reading this tedious recital is the question as to whether he is ever going to get her into he sack again.  I will not reveal that, but there is an accident, and the final chapters of the book (it has no fewer than 83 chapters) are also rather odd. The protagonist decides to tell the story of his love ife, and chooses the well-known writer Orhan Pamuk to put it into words. Meantime, he embarks, obsessively again, on a world-wide search of small museums (he visited more than 4,000, he said)  which could inspire his decision to actually create a Museum of Innocence, containing the many thousands of artifacts he has collected over the years.
The kicker here is that Pamuk, author of this strange book, has actually created such a museum in Istanbul, which opened in 2012.
I can only pass on the description of the Museum given by the historian Simon Schama who after visiting it, said it would be crazy, “had not Pamuk created in this old house what may be the single most powerfully beautiful, human and affecting work of contemporary art anywhere in the world, at once poetic and darkly comical; tender, and case by case, space by space, aesthetically ravishing.”
 I do have to admit that through this strange method Pamuk in this book manages to provide a deeply authentic-seeming portrait of Istanbul society as it was caught in its traditions between the old Muslim authoritarian world, and its embrace of the values of modernity, such as consumerism, affluence, economic growth, and their accompanying freedom of speech, dignity of the individual and the rights of minorities. As to the first three of these qualities, Pamuk considers Turkey has done relatively well; as to the latter three he is not convinced. Indeed, he himself has had to face a prosecution, which was unsuccessful, that his writings had  undermined the Turkish state.

The third of these excellent novels was possibly the most assured, the most successfully achieved, the most gripping, and probably the most interesting of them all. Robert Harris was an early enthusiast for the leadership of Tony Blair, and he worked in his backrooms alongside his close friend Peter Mandelson. When Mandelson was demoted and denigrated, he decided to stand by him, phoned his friends and acquaintances, and was amazed at how quickly they had all decided to forsake him,  He used his experiences in government to inform the intensely political book he has written about ancient Greece, in which he follows the rise of the notable orator Cicero into the leadership of Rome. The story is told by a slave who became Cicero’s amanuensis (and who invented the first effective shorthand enabling him to take accurate notes of speeches his master made). This book --- written by a natural writer, who had no trouble creating the complex political speeches that are quoted verbatim in its pages ---  came from the pen of a man who had already written best-selling thrillers. His grasp of the politics of ancient Greece is extraordinary, and he managed the whole affair without putting a step wrong.  Once again I found myself marvelling at how the British education system, whatever its failures from a democratic point of view, has been able to turn out such a string of superb novelists, essayists, dramatists, and poets, equal to those produced anywhere in the world. After growing up on a council estate, Harris was educated at Cambridge.

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