Posts Tagged ‘book reviews’

The Judge and the Hangman, by Friedrich Durrenmatt, Pushkin Press, 2017.
ISBN 978 1 78227 341 7

Occaisionally I dabble with crime novels. Ok, splurge – I was a big fan of the Janwillem van Der Wettering, his Grijpstra and de Gier, novels at one point. A Dutch author; the series was written in English. He lived in America for the latter half of his life.
His biography cites periods of time as working part time with the Amsterdam police force, but also as a Zen Buddhist. And so it was very surprising/dismaying to see how sexist, even racist at times, he could be.
His books are, however, always full of vicarious learning: we find out about Friesland indepedence, and sloe gin; we learn how the furniture import trade works.

Then of course there are the Cormoran Strike novels. Except for the last one, very well written as it is, some of the subject matter….
I do not read to solve the crimes, but to enjoy the craft and skill of the writing.

Pushkin Press, that excellent publisher, https://pushkinpress.com brought The Judge and the Hangman to my attention.
And at 126 pages, it is a quite a gem, bijou, and impactful.
Originally published in 1950, revised 1952, it was first translated into English in 1955.

Friedrich Dürrenmatt greatly disliked the early crime-game novels, where ‘You set up your stories logically, like a chess game; all the detective needs to know is the rules, he replays the moves of the game, and checkmate…. This fantasy drives me crazy.
And so he set out to create a different kind of novel, and the novels he wrote in this genre were more psychology-led, more devious, like people, surprising, and full of with-held knowledge.
His compatriots in writing are cited as the French New Wave of Alain Robbe-Grillet’s The Erasers.

There is also lovely, lyrical writing. Set in post-War Switzerland, The Judge and the Hangman gives us:
The storm had relaxed, and suddenly, by the Muristalden, Barlach found himself steeped in blinding light: the sun broke through the clouds, disappeared, came out again, and was caught up in a rollicking chase of mists and clouds, huge bulging mounds that came racing in from the West to pile up in front of the mountains, casting wild shadows across the city that lay spread out by the river between forests and hills…. his eyes glittered as he avidly drank in the spectacle: the world was beautiful.’

Inspector Barlach was an ageing police inspector, mostly stationed in Berne. He had travelled in his life, though, spending time in Turkey, and other points in Europe. His talent was criminology. HIs last posting was Frankfurt am Main, in 1933; he had to leave hastily: ‘his return… was a slap he had given a high-ranking official of the new German government. There is a dry humour in this, as well establishing political credentials.
His boss Dr Lucius Lutz, had also travelled, and forever compared deplorable Swiss police methods with his time in Chicago. Yes, those years, of John Dillinger et al.

The big turn-around in the story is very skilfully plotted, and comes with an in-take of breath, from the arch-villain of the piece, as for the reader.

And there is a follow-up book on Inspector Barlach, Suspicion.
I look forward to reading this.

Cunning Intelligence in Greek Culture and Society by Marcel Detienne and Jean Pierre Vernant (Harverster Press), is a deeply researched and innovative book.

In Book XXIII of the Iliad, towards the end of the funeral games for death of Patroclus, there is a chariot race. One of the contestants is the relatively young and inexperienced, Antilochus, son of the wise Nestor.

Nestor says to his son, …these are slow horses, and they may turn-in/ a second-rate performance. The other teams/ are faster. But the charioteers/ Know no more racing strategy than you do./ Work out a plan of action in your mind/ dear son, do not let the prize slip through your fingers. (translation Robert Fitzgerald).

So what he does is, up to the home straight, he managed to hold on level with the others; in fact he was neck and neck with Menelaus in joint second position. Then they came upon a narrowing of the track where a landslide had encroached. Antilochus would not rein in, which caused Menelaus to do so, and so gave Antilochus the chance he needed and he pulled ahead.

He came second.
However, Menelaus would not let it go at that: Antilochus, you were clear-headed once./ How have you acted now?….

Antilochus, to maintain amity split his winnings with Menelaus.

Another version of this is, Antilochus drove his chariot with a clear plan, which was to force the brinkmanship with Menelaus. This he did successfully: he had inspected the course, found the narrowing, and planned around it.

His error was to be too obvious; he should have got away with it by making it look as though his horses had run away with him. He would have had to prepare for this, though, by surreptitiously displaying moments of loss of control earlier in the race. He would have won the same, but also kept his prize, and his prestige.

This second version is the way of the true cunning.

With this version, the book says, we begin to notice clusters of words, phrases, that occur again and again. In Greek we have

Metis – informed prudence

Dolos – cunning

Kerde – tricks

Kairos – ability to seize the opportunity

Pantoie – multiple

Poikile – many coloured

Oiole – shifting

They all describe the polymorphic, polyvalence of wily intelligence

The most important is Metis. She was once a goddess, first wife of Zeus. She helped him in the fight to dethrone his father, Chronos. Her reward? To be swallowed by Zeus. After all, he cannot have such an unruly presence in his ordered realms. Swallowed she gave him the power to foresee events.

Such is the fate of all who help a dictator to power: we saw it in Soviet Russia, where Stalin cleared away all the old, original, Bolsheviks from government. It is indeed everywhere to be seen still.

The book also calls upon the work of Oppian, second century AD Latin writer of hunting and fishing treatises.

Hunting and fishing are worlds of duplicitous dealings, he says. To be good at either craft, art, one must have the ability to appear to be/do one thing whilst being/doing another. One must be a master of camoflage, subterfuge.

He wrote, ‘In this world of hunting and fishing, victory is only to be won through metis.’
That word again.

There are a number of essential qualities one must have.

1 – Agility, suppleness, swiftness, mobility

– one must move as swiftly as one’s prey; be able to ‘leap from stone to stone’ etc.

2 – Dissimulation

– one must be able to lie in wait whilst appearing not to do so etc.

3 – Vigilance

– one must be sleepless, untiring; or, appearing to sleep whilst being fully alert, watchful.

One must be, in essence, ‘a master of finesse’: polupaipalos. One must be a master of cunning and multiplicity.

There are a number of animals highly regarded for their metis, their cunning:

The wily fox

A master of strategy and cunning. His den is underground; it has innumerable exits.

He knows how to make his body itself a trap: when stalking, birds say, he can lie as if dead for hours in order to disable their vigilance.

In fables, the book notes, the fox’s words ‘are more beguiling than those of the sophist.’

Anything shifting, scintillating, that shimmers, beguiles the senses: one is no longer fully alert but distracted, lulled even. One then, is prey to the master of metis.

The octopus

The octopus ‘is a knot made up of a thousand arms, a living, interlacing network.’ And, just as the fox’s den has innumerable exits, so does the octopus have innumerable means of escape and capture.

It is like the snake, and thereby we see Typhon here.

It is also like the labyrinth – this is the fox’s den again.

For Oppian, the octopus is ‘as a burglar… under the cover of night.’

We see in this the octopus and its use of its ink to cover its escape, but also to hide in it in order to capture prey.

For the master of cunning this is the smokescreen he/she uses to gain the required object.

…like the fox, the octopus defines a type of human behaviour…’ that one must ‘present a different aspect of oneself to each of your friends…’ like the octopus that can change colour to fit in with its environment, background.

The book also notes: ‘The octopus-like intelligence is found in two types of man’: the sophist, and the politician.

Each is an apparent contrary of the other.
Contrary, and yet also, oddly, complementary.

And here lies another aspect of cunning: as well as appearing as one thing whilst being another, he must also use both qualities where and when necessary.

The octopus is supple enough to squeeze through a chink to escape, but also solid enough to hold its prey in a hard and fast clutch.

This is known as ‘the bond and the circle’: the circular reciprocity ‘between what is bound, and what is binding‘. This can be seen in the use of the fishing net; the more one struggles, the more one becomes ensnared.

Ten centuries separate Homer from Oppian – throughout this period can be cited a number of examples of this complex of ideas.

The underground den of the fox, and the sea environment of the octopus, throw up a metaphysic where gods and goddesses rule mankind’s fortunes.

The fox is decidedly chthonic, he has the qualities of the old gods of the race of Chronos, the Giants/Titans etc, the pre-Olympians. He is a emissary from Chaos, where ‘there is no up, or down, no side to side’: the unformed space, brimming with potential, but not active as such.


– So much like a definition of the astrophysicist’s ‘Quantum soup’.
Uncanny? Or is there a.cultural/educational link in the imagery?

This is the state of mind of the master of metis: all awaits its birth in the intent, concentration, and single-mindedness, of the hunter/master of cunning.

The octopus lives in the sea, medium of the goddess Thetis. She has similar properties to those which Metis had.

The fate of Metis may also answer what happened to the biblical  Lilith; they did seem to share many qualities, and most of these centred around closeness of identification with animals.
The realm of Middle-eastern demons does not seem to have its counterpart in Greek culture.

It also answers the question Why. Why what?
Why Aeschylus fell foul of the Orphics for supposedly betraying their secrets in his play Agamemnon. For Cunning was claimed by the later Orphics as theirs.
I could suggest it has a kindred spirit in Bacchus, also.

You know what that means. Now I am going to have to dig out Euripedes’ The Bacchae from about thirty years ago, and re-read it in this light!

I would suggest the violation of Orphic secrets was in Aeschylus’ use of the net:

Agamemnon returned home after ten years at Ilium. In the meantime his wife, Clytemnestra, had taken another lover.
Added to, or because of, that, in order to gain a favourable wind to take their ships across to Ilium in the first place, Agamemnon was advised to make a personal sacrifice to the gods. He chose his own daughter Iphigenia.

Quite rightly, Clytemnestra was inconsolable. And so the consequences would be terrible.

When he arrived home after ten years Clytemnestra was well prepared – she had made ready a pathway strewn with royal purple. He walked over this, in effect insulting the gods by setting himself on their level.

This was planned. His next error was take the obligatory bath prepared for him as all weary travellers of renown did. In the bath she snared him with a net, and then he was killed.

There began a terrible period of retribution we know as The Orestia.

Clytemnestra was a mistress of cunning: she planned this long in advance; she made it look as though Agamemnon had violated honour to the gods (the purpled path), and she used trickery to ensnare him with the net, used honeyed words to lure him. The deed, though, was committed by Clytemnestra.
Cunning specifies that a third person should do the deed, whilst the possible suspect, herself, gives herself a solid alibi.

The hacker who ricochets his signal throughout the world communication system is a modern practitioner of cunning.

It is these lapses from the absolute, that Greek drama is all about.

I have given two instances of users of cunning connected with The Iliad; the third, of course, is Odysseus, master of tricks. Who knows how many more are yet to be found.

One last note: for the master of cunning, it is only a matter of time before he is revealed, makes an error, or is supplanted.
The master of cunning may seem to be laying low, but he is constantly on the go, obliterating traces, changing habitat, watchful, always watchful. He does not drop his guard. Ever.

Where Shall We Run To? by Alan Garner. Published  2018, Impress Books/4th Estate.

This, the most recent book by Alan Garner, writer of novels, and gatherer and refashioner of tales, is a collection of autobiographical writings.

They chart his life in the tiny village of Alderley Edge, outside Manchester, from his earliest memories, up to the end of World War 2, when his life changed forever.
He had passed his 11 Plus exam and was to leave the small village environs that marked his world, and go out into the bigger world of higher education. Not only that, but instead of going to the local grammar school, he had gained scholarship funding, and was to attend the greatly more prestigious innercity Manchester Grammar School.
My conveyor belt, he wrote, ‘took me to Oxford.’

Alan Garner was born in 1934. His young life was greatly taken up by the War years, its privations, and mysterious otherworld-like qualities of night raids, disrupted daytimes. One of the memoir here is of children, Vaccies, taken out of dangerous environments, cities, places likely to be bombed in air raids. He encountered several groups of these from very different areas of the country at his local school. The most surprising Vaccies, and the ones who made a big impression were from the Channel Islands, Guernsey in particular.

The collection of memoir also backlights Alan Garner’s great concern with the dichotomy between reality and imagination, the roles they play in a person’s life. This was a source of escalating tension in his first five books, climaxing in 1972’s Red Shift. The dichotomy fissured his sensibilities; he could not easily give each its due, but one had to take precedence. In consequence the other had to be relegated; the tension was unresolved, and so continued.

In this new book we see it in the almost iconic images of those earlier books; we see them here as everyday objects. In Elidor the cottage porch became the doorway to another world. In Red Shift, the bunty, the budgerigar Jan valued – both are revealed here to be his own tiny home cottage porchway, and Bunty, the name of his own pet bird, he had to leave unattended through an air raid, and was found dead afterwards.

The cottage is still there in Alderley Edge.
Alderley Edge itself became a dormitory town for wealthy Manchester businesspeople. In consequence the cottage, now no longer squalid, has become a Grade II listed building, and worth nearly £400,000. Such are the ways of Estate Agents/Real Estate.

https://media.onthemarket.com/properties/7000532/1019742648/document-0.pdf

We also see, in The Stone Book, one of his middle novels, the weather-vane cockerel in real life, much smaller than imagined once brought down from the church to be re-coated. It is the young Alan Garner sits astride it, and whilst on the ground – not the Mary of the story, nor on the church steeple.
I have argued elsewhere that this particular book is written in perfect chiasmic form, and is also literally a cock-and-bull story, as each image in turn plays a major part in the depth reading of the storyline in each half of the chiasmic form of the story.
In reality the icons from the books are less impressive, but solid, durable in their own right.

In The Voice That Thunders, 1997, his earlier collection of essays, he relates how the many periods of early childhood illness allowed him both to read voraciously outside the narrow school curriculum, but also to compensate for being confined to bed for long periods, by travelling and adventuring imaginatively, dreaming vividly. Awareness of the discrepancy between what was immediately outside his window, and inside his imagination, was exercised and elaborated upon.

There have been several stylistic changes in his writing, throughout his writing career. The first two books are more full of their own juiciness, so much so sometimes the style nearly swamps the storytelling. The Moon of Gomrath, 1963, evinces a greater, stricter stylistic control. The language is sparer, the images sharper. We feel less manipulated into psychological events: the tunnel escape from the Edge mines enacting primal birthing experiences etc.

Elidor, 1965 – I feel it wobbles a little: The Lay of the Starved Minstrel? Even I found that a bit too contrived. It gains by its setting. The novel sets out the battle ground for the war between imagination and reality that has dogged the writer so long.

The Owl Service is just great, the writing taut and spare, nothing is wasted.
Red Shift takes this even further. It ends in a kind of defeat: seek help, psychological help, Jan says to Tom. The time fissures become unbridgeable chasms, like a mind disintegrating. The copper mines beneath Alderley Edge that played such a large part in the first book, imaged the psychic fissures.

Then the language simplified, the images cleared of unwanted baggage. The Stone Book Quartet was four short books based firmly on fact and known family memories. They carried identifiable and accessible images.

The later books from Strandloper, 1996, onwards, increasingly explore the same psychic fissures as the first books, but more and more in psychological terms. The latest book, Boneland, 2012, depends almost wholly on psychology to unravel the ascendance at the end of The Moon of Gomrath.  The language of these books is difficult, employing greater amounts of colloquialism, and, especially in Strandloper, subjective monologue unanchored to easily identifiable events.
There is a lot of astronomical calculation in Boneland; I was lost there.

The Wiki page on him
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alan_Garner

describes his genre as ‘low fantasy’ – this is to contrast with high fantasy, which is whole-world-building fantasy. This is important. His nearest to world building was in Elidor, but he firmly shut that door. His strength was not in world-building; he recognised this in time.
In The Voice That Thunders he writes how he chose real life over the fantasy realms. And so he later launched into craft and skills-heavy terminology, astronomical calculations; to archeological graft and careful uncovering, over discovering.
I sometimes wonder if, when one manipulates reality for one’s own ends, does that not weigh on a person, and cumulatively?

The memoirs do show how much interpretation and bias has gone into presentation of material, fact, however.
I remember a public talk he gave as he geared up for the writing of Thursbitch. Not is all as he made out. The mundane becomes totemic.

Throughout the present book he is careful to present himself as a weak child, prone to many illnesses that we assume his peers were not. He enumerates the times he was frequently reduced to tears.
In his younger years he became a prodigious runner, running great distances over hill and moor. It was on one of these runs he discovered his great grandfather’s roadside stone carving that forms part of the kernal of Thursbitch. I have also seen this stone and it is a great many miles out and off any main route.
Running: was he punishing his body for having been weak, whilst ensuring it would not let him down again? Such distance running not only builds body strength, stamina, but also develops will-power and concentration.
I once worked with a man who, once his MS had subsided, also took to such distance running feats, the greater the challenge the better. He’d work laying roads by day, and run in the evenings.

And so, there is clearly some strategy at work in his choice of depiction. Is it just to foist on us the dialect speech: ‘Mardy arse.’?

What did his friends wear, besides clogs for school? What were their meals (beside the odd slug, and drain mould – then he wondered why he was sickly!)? What was breakfast, and how important was it deemed to be? What were their general thoughts, concerns, hopes, worries?
The language of the book is direct, and without depth-charges. He takes pains to be authentic: he mentions Lyle’s syrup, then launches into a lengthy description of the tin and its From strength came forth sweetness, marketing slogan. There are many such examples. His authenticising runs to depcting the narrow , shallow, states of mind of children of the age he was. The big concerns puzzle; his own worries are inexpressible.

 

His conveyor belt took him to Oxford, and the prestigious Grammar School experience and the Oxford mentality, have stayed with him ever after: the commanding manner, cultured voice, and expectation, that demands and receives of others in return.
But he did leave Oxford before taking his Finals; he did return to the small local world, a life and house without sanitation and modern conveniences.
Then he could begin.

He was to learn from scratch how to walk the line between parochial and provincial, to use P J Kavannagh’s terms.

See also:
https://wordpress.com/post/michael9murray.wordpress.com/3744

Love, Nina, by Nina Stibbe. Published by Penguin Books, 2013.
ISBN 9780241965092

This is the type of book I do not usually take to.
Ah, but then, it is a clever book, it juggles with the questions this ‘type’ of book prompts.

The book is usually classed as non-fiction. It is presented as edited letters home – from a nanny new to London, in the 1980’s.
But the book was published in 2013. And in between? A career in publishing, family, children. In between, then, were years gaining skills in ‘the literary world’, the social and political ‘worlds’ of London, work, motherhood. A honing of skills, purpose, sense of self, awareness of the world.
There is almost a Bridget Jones aspect here, but Nina does not do the knowing semi-metropolitan sophisticat.

She wished, Nina Stibbe said in an interview of the time of publication, that she had made… (a certain character – see below)… more funny. But she saw him at the time as just a middle-aged man. Made?
And also in this comment are clues to the workings of the book.

The book plays with the genre of epistolary novels, with the innocent abroad, with the ingénue.
It is a book of two parts: 1982 -84 working as a nanny in London; 1984-87 as full time student at Thames Polytechnic.
In both parts she lived in the same small part of London: Gloucester Crescent/Regent Park Terrace,  within range of the morning waking sounds of London zoo.

As a student she admitted to having pangs for the life her fellow students lived. She was fully aware by then of the cocooned and sheltered life she lived there. It cherished her abilities, and widened her life skills and knowledge, despite that.

Across the Crescent lived the writer Alan Bennett, a frequent supper visitor to their house (the middle-aged man, above). Next door was Claire Tomalin, critic and writer. Across the Crescent further down was novelist Deborah Moggach, and Jonathon Miller. Also on the Crescent was the widow of composer Ralph Vaughan-Williams (‘A composer called Ralph?’).
Alan Bennett’s driveway was always occupied – a passing comment. We only need to think of his The Lady In The Van, to see the significance of this.
Nina was nanny to MK, deputy editor of the London Review of Books, and her two young sons.
Who’s George Melly?’ she wrote her sister, Vic, back in Leicester. ‘I’m in his bedroom.

With this set-up the character of the book must needs weave her ingénue path through influences and influencers, whilst retaining that innocence the reader identifies with. This requires very delicate balancing tricks.
And this is where the two-part structure of the book works. The ingénue nanny cannot remain uninfluenced by her environment. It would lose the reader’s trust, and the character’s credibility.
The nanny, Nina, began to study A Levels, in the vague hope of gaining more education. This is where the delicate balancing really comes to the fore. She could either come across as an unliterate boor and bore, blocking all attempts at knowledge, in order to retain the ingénue state. Or  change.
The book would be amusing, but limited, one-dimensional, if she had chosen the first path.

Scraping through her A Levels she gained admission to a degree course. But lived still in the same small cocoon. And here we see her grow: she loved the course, and her subjects – especially American drama and fiction. Instead of maintaining the suffocating and provincial self that she began with, the character-self was allowed to grow and develop.

One episode has the tutor take her students to a dress rehearsal; a Samuel Beckett play. It had Billie Whitelaw as actor.
Whilst watching the rehearsal the author was distracted by someone muttering behind them. Turning round she recognised Samuel Beckett himself; he’d come for Billie Whitelaw’s acting, of course.
She was the only one of the group saw him. Afterwards she had the task of persuading them it really had been him. The clincher was her description: Handsome but very old… symmetrical, upright, still, slight second-glass occlusion of the jaw’ (she had been a dental assistant at one point) ‘… a well-groomed fisherman.’
This, of course, is the classic photograph of Samuel Beckett, in – is it a pea jacket? – roll-neck seaman’s sweater.

Where do truth and fiction meet?
That is the question the book juggles with throughout. Her favourite course at Thames, was Autobiography and Fiction. Was there such a course? Or is this pure fiction, introducing us, the reader, to the inner dynamics of this book?
She ruminates on the balancing acts between autobiography and the requirements of fiction in the book. This is the biggest clue to the craft and skill she is employing here.
… writing truthfully is very hard…’ she writes…‘In the end the writing wins and you have you assume  it was the way it seems in the writing of it.’
‘Which is why you might be less than truthful… :to tell the truth you have to lie a bit.’
Lying is a major theme throughout the book: the little lies, the white lies, the inadvertent lies, the face-saving ones, the life-giving ones, and the whopping big ones.
‘Who threw newspaper all over your bed and floor? they ask young Sam in hospital.
‘Frank Bruno.He asked me how I was; I told him to f-off. He got annoyed and threw it all about’.

 

I have been wondering what connect there could be between a sophisticated L-R-Books deputy editor, and a nanny from the provinces with no higher education?
The big one was, of course, the children. The Nina-character went out of her way constantly to support and tend to them.
But there was also the ‘man’ issue. Nina came from a one-parent background, into another one.
This is one of the book’s big strengths, the taking down of men off their pedestal. God knows why and how they got up there to begin with.
Men are always presented as peculiar, ‘other’, strange. Hang on, isn’t that how some men see women? Still?
One of these peculiar creatures is the boyfriend who ‘must always masturbate before he can sleep’.
Yes, but he’s not being literal: a slave to his physiology. No, it’s code for him wanting a ‘hands-on’ girlfriend. How many have tried this one!
And Alan Bennett, unthreatening, homely, safe – yet he constantly surprises everyone, himself included, with his extensive and real knowledge of how household appliances work.
The oddness of others is a constant theme of shared discussion throughout the book.
And also I suspect – and here you have to know some of the Nina Stibbe backstory – the two women looked after and looked out for each other. MK looked after Nina the nanny, a young woman with much potential she had not been able to realise through the neglect that was the role of women in that period, that society.

One of my favourite episodes in the book occurs when she notices young Sam looking at his hands. ‘He does that a lot.’ says William, his brother. Are you looking at something? Or are you thinking?
Yes. No. Sometimes. Both.

So she tries it, it brings out in her a meditative mood. Up that point we have seen her quirky, hands-on, and impatient, even brusque, with abstraction, with the theory part of her degree course.
She discussed this eloquently with MK, her employer.
MK listened, then instantly turned to practical things, her mother’s recipe, for instance.

How do you read this? That is the key to the book – how you ‘read’ it. So much is suggested, by tone of voice, clipping of self-response, that the reader is drawn in to engage, fill in the gaps, the backgrounds, from clues given.

So, why do I not usually take to this type of book?
Well, look at the time and place: London, the 1980s.
What was going on in the bigger world? IRA bombings; Chernobyl in 1986 – I still hold that the need to be open about this disaster was the crucial factor behind Gorbochov’s later Glasnost and Perestroika programmes, and, well, the collapse of 1989.
Then there are the first instances of the AIDS disaster.
And what we get is a cocoon of closed-off lives.
An elite, living in their own shut-off world.
Except it isn’t, Alan Bennett had just published his book on Philby in Russia, An Englishman Abroad; he introduced current TV people into the little circle. The children were avid newspaper readers; their regular TV shows Coronation Street, The Young Ones, football: soaps, satire, and sport.

On a smaller scale we have the burgeoning 1980s music scene – apart from Prince’s Red Corvette, little makes any impact.
What we do get are the fashions in new foods going through London at the time: new menus and recipes. And we get make-up styles appearing, clothes styles, hair styles.
On the bigger scale there’s mention of someone wearing a checkered scarf, called an Arafat scarf.
This is the Labour and Socialist influence: both big supporters of the Palestinian cause. They always supported the underdog. In this case the Israeli State was the big aggressor, and the Palestinians the victims.
There are still repercussions of this in the current schisms in the UK Labour Party, now solidified into anti-Zionist tendencies.

It is this disparity between the small in the large, the small circle within the huge major City, gives the book some of its dynamic.

 

This little world set-up, impervious to the ‘moments’ of time and history, usually leaves me either cold or uninterested.
So why does this one get through? Because of its warmth, humour, and wry sideways glances at our usually hidden and discrete intellectual and cultural circles and elites.
For one.
And it is genuinely funny. It takes the tired, old ‘crazy things kids say’ to another level, adding pathos, and sheer brilliance. And, did I say, it is really very funny?

 

A TV series was attempted of the book, with Helena Bonham-Carter as MK. Many names were changed and characters omitted. It had a mixed reception.
That’s the trouble with TV adaptations, they are from one medium into another, and it is not always that easy.
With TV we have visual predominance, whereas with the book all is filtered through the perceptions of the main character. It is only visual further down the scale of perceptions. Initially we perceive from within character, what we see is already altered, re-coloured, re-balanced. The predominant engagement is language, the main character talking is to us.

 

See also: her follow-up ‘fiction’ books:
Man at the Helm, published by Viking/Penguin Books, 2014
Paradise Lodge, published by Viking/Penguin Books, 2016

Venus As A Bear, by Vahni Capildeo, Carcanet Press, 2018.
ISBN 978184105549.
Pbk £9.99

This book was a happy buy. A book to keep returning to, and the pleasure undiminished.

Part of the pleasure in reading poetry is perplexity, it has to challenge intellectually, viscerally, even culturally.
This last point is important because a large part of the pleasure, and the hook that brings me back time and again to this book, is the wide cultural landscape it covers.

Vahni Capildeo is from Trinidad, of old Indian heritage. Her references are evident in a cultural questionnaire she responded to: asked about influences in painting, music, the arts, writing, she gave these responses, in no particular order –Peter Minshull; Bhanu Kapil; Sharon Millar (her Whale House book); Sharmistha Moharty; Martin Carter.

She gave, in effect, creators and curators of the vibrant Trinidadian scene. There is a measure of self-consciousness here, choosing for the Western press people not of their heritage. There is also an exuberant celebration of alternative tradition in this response.

One reviewer began with her first poem in the book, Welcome, on the birth of new lambs (acknowledgements to their keepers, Selina Guinness and Colin Henderson).
The reviewer’s title informs us there is nothing trivial in this book – and so the phrase ‘funny fuzzy’ relays more than seems. It has an essential pictorial dimension – letter/font shapes replicate the seen/experienced: the lower case nn of young lambs on long spindly legs, that become sleeping shapes by their dam, in the zz.

What initially drew me to the book was the opening of the poem LEAVES/FEUILLES/FALLS homage Pierre de Ronsard, Ode a Cassandre

(i)   Qui                                          m’a
vo

ma
fleur
verte

c’est                la vie

WordPress! I just cannot replicate the layout of these lines – I’ve tried all ways. WordPress!

Ok, I had been brushing up my school French before I came upon this passage, and so it chimed very nicely with my own concerns and interests.
It was the use of space, though, like a breath of fresh air after the blocks of print and narrow concerns of so many British poets. And also the sound values appealed to me, and still do.

So, from these two examples we begin to get some idea of the breadth of appeal of these poems – visual and auditory, but also concerns with translation, with relationships of the perceived to the known, felt, the plasticity of awareness.

Let’s look to Vahni Capildeo again: she came over from Trinidad to the UK to study at university. She gained her PhD in Norse/skaldic, and Translation Theory.
She has worked in academia, culture for development, with Commonwealth Writers, and even as an Oxford English Dictionary lexicographer.

So, do we need a background in, say, Cultural Theory – the Stuart Hall- Raymond Williams spat for example – to understand her work? No; it’d help, but….
Do we need experience of diaspora issues, then? No; it’d help.
Do we need to be academics? No,but it’d help.

It’d help because it’s always useful/essential to broaden and deepen one’s current knowledge.

What appeals about her work is that very breadth of cultural heritage, and it all was encapsulated for me in that, spatially aware, culturally and chronologically diverse, opening section of LEAVES/FEUILLES/FALLS.
Incidentally, did you spot the ee cummings reference? The falling leaf in the positioning of words and lines?

What appeals about her work is this multi-cognitive awareness that informs the crafting of her work. Each word is weighed, rang for sound, you might almost say chromatically tested for possible linkages to alternative structures and meanings.

Why Venus as a… bear? An obvious Bjork reference, ok, but also referencing other genders than the blurry two. Gender politics has enforced its own peculiar and special psychological dimensions; repression skews responses. To be aware, to write from the contemporary moment, is to take on the clamouring injustices of marginalised lives and experiences.

The book is arranged into seven sections: Creatures; Shameless Acts of Ekphrasis; Langues/Tongues; Sea Here; Some Things; Like… Like…; Music/Avant Toute Chose

You’ve got to love the exuberant humour and playfulness. They round out the poems.

Normally, I have a growl at this use of needlessly academic terms, like Ekphrasis. Here she uses it wryly, as if she was also aware of its overspending. It’s in that ‘Shameless Acts’ offsetting pretension.
Yup, I admit myself charmed.

Out Damned Spot, William Shakespeare Crime-Scene Cleaner , by F J McQueen. Published by Urbane Publications, 2016

https://urbanepublications.com/our-books/
https://urbanepublications.com/authors/?s=F+J+McQueen&book-authors=&order=

This is the most extraordinary work of fiction that I have read in a long, long time.

1

We expect fiction to be set in our known world, where responses to environment are known, our own experience, and as ordinary. In a fantasy work the same applies: they are all recognisable people in recognisable situations, it is the details that are different.
But what if one’s responses to the environment became other than the known? What if the environment became other than our experienced world?

The shift, here, is in cognition: something is different, something is ‘other’, and nothing becomes accessible to the ‘predictive text’ of our inner narration.

The story centres around the nodes of Shakespeare’s main plays. We navigate a world that opens, like the Shakespearean world discovering its America.
Will Shakespeare is on the last day of his work as a hospital doctor. What had gone wrong? We presume that something had. And why was he woken once more at midnight with that terrible sound? One that no one else could hear?
The ordinary of that world, though, was not our ordinary.
He set up next day as a Crime-Scene cleaner. The crimes? The plays are littered with the wrongfully dead.
His cleaning fluid – and here we enter a world truly chilling – is mysteriously provided for him by nine seriously unsettling people. Or are they all emanations of one? And their price? A meal of oneself.

2

There is a short story by Leonora Carrington, Cast Down By Sorrow, where the narrator meets the elderly but coquettish Arabelle Pegase. She speaks of her clothes, and mentions a dress she has that is made from cat’s heads,
What was your reaction to that? Horrified, like mine? And yet I think that her intention with this image is something else – it is a changed aesthetic, even a changed system of ethics, that she is describing.
It is used as an artistic, painter’s, image, visual and tactile, rather than humanistic.
And similarly here, the images in this book have their own wholeness, inner logic, that is not literary in the narrow sense that it is being used more and more at the present time.

There is an incident where a soil boat appears – or is it a grave? It takes you places; it takes you to the river of time where golems struggle to hold back a certain day. Made of clay they crumble constantly as they strain and struggle to keep hold against the flow of time. As they crumble new ones take their place, a constant renewing. But you sense the struggle, the need.
These are not literary images, but visual images – they could work as graphic images in a graphic novel. The visual, this is where the where the book’s Venn-structure overlaps the most.
But, some might say, golems do not appear in The Plays. No, but they are part of the sensibility of the period, of the wider environment of the time. And also of our time.
This is one of the many aspects of the book I especially like, it’s willingness to not stay harnessed to ploughing the narrow furrow of what we now take to be The Plays.

Take MacBeth’s three witches, they make their appearance early on in the tale, transposed as oracles, in a hospital cupboard. And they prophesy… impossible things. But the impossibles become increasingly possible as the tale deepens into itself.

How does it work? One crack in the world-self narrative we spin for ourselves – one crack, and a different take on reality becomes possible.
It is a cognitive shift.

In another’s hand the story could become whimsy – but that does not happen. The images are impactful, the writing of a very high standard, and the overall imagining quite devastating in its range and implications.

 

 

Image result for epileptic, michael b

Published by L’Association, Paris, France. 2005
Jonathon Cape, 2009

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Epileptic-David-B/dp/0224079204/ref=sr_1_fkmr1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1535718463&sr=1-1-fkmr1&keywords=Epilepsy%2C+by+Michael+B

Epileptic was originally published in six volumes by L’Ascension de Haut Mal, 1996-2004.
The first three volumes translated into English by Kim Thompson, and published as a single volume by L’Association, Paris, France, 2002.

Epileptic is a graphic novel, and an easy match for any quality purely-text work. Notice that ‘novel’ as opposed to ‘text’, above?
Epileptic is not a novel, but it is a graphic work. It is an account of an illness.
It is an account of the expanding universe that illness creates. It is the biography of Jean-Christophe’s epilepsy.
There is plenty of text, from quoting Gerard de Nerval, and Pessoa, to the fin de sicele books David gets into: Meyrinck et al.
So, who is Jean-Christophe?

There were three children: Jean-Christophe, the eldest, then Pierre-Francois, then a couple of year gap, and Florence was born. They lived in Orleans, France. Ordinary kids, children of teachers. From an early age Pierre-Francois, later David, became obsessed with Genghiz Khan. They all embroidered in the telling each other’s bed-time stories, to create wonderful adventures.
Great battle scenes dominated Pierre-Francois; he drew in great detail from an early age.
Then one day out of the blue, Jean-Christophe had a seizure.
.

And so it began, the great and endless round of doctors.
Medicine, in those days, early to mid 1960s, did not seem to have that much to offer to epilepsy patients. His seizures became more frequent, and severe.
One surgeon advocated expanding his brain with air in order to see structures and abnormalities better. Then surgery to remove part. He would not be whole again, of course, but….
Sounds barbaric to us, now. But was that any worse than, say, the splitting of the hemispheres of the brain in order to control and isolate the spread of a seizure?
See Spasm, by Lauren Slater.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lauren_Slater
https://www.irishtimes.com/news/spasm-a-memoir-with-lies-by-lauren-slater-methuen-6-99-in-uk-1.299480

Epilepsy is not just a matter of loss of physical and mental control, in public, anywhere, at any time. It also carries the burden of increasing deterioration of ability to rationalise, concentrate, remember. The medication plays its part, of course.
And here we begin to see how much epilepsy takes.
Michael B sees/draws it as a huge, multifaceted and shape-shifting monster.

Alternative regimes were becoming available at the time. His parents seized on these like drowning people. Macrobiotics – ok, they try a commune, run by an older Japanese man. David B sees/draws him as a great benign cat.
Satire makes a very welcome addition to the telling: Your child draws very violent images, they accuse.
Oh, they’re samurai, that’s alright.

And humour:
Later on, his cartooning tutor says, Your images are disturbing. And why do you not draw ears?
He fought against it, but in the end drew ears.
Hm, they’re even more disturbing with ears.

There is sadness in the background of other’s lives too. The man who took over the commune when the Japanese leader left later committed suicide with his son. He had failed at everything, even being a macrobiotic guru.

The round of spiritualists, quack doctors, quack healers, is saddening.
Both parents teach, and Jean-Christophe cannot be left at home. The only alternative is to keep packing him off to board at clinics, centers. The impact of this on him is an unknown quality and quality, that explodes later.

His once youthful and spritely father is exasperated: Jean-Christophe is reading Mein Kampf. Can you not find anything better? he asks. It’s a great book, he responds.
Michael B knows he’s doing it on purpose, challenging, as all children, especially eldest children, do. And just as David gloried in the battles of Gengiz Khan, so Jean-Christophe clung to the defeated but not gone, fascistic past. But surely it was to something that gave the impression of being strong, seemingly stable, that he was seeking out. And also something to get back at people with, the people he saw as having failed him.

Both were fighting with the monster in their lives, in their family, and what it had done to them, and was continuing to do. It transformed itself, constantly; most of the time they could see only aspects of it.

Nature and nurture. How much was inherent – the violent tendencies ( though they are no worse than any of kid), for instance. The author asks how much had Jean-Christophe used his epilepsy in order to avoid dealing with the world.
Many times Jean-Christophe suggests work he would like to do, only to be slapped down: You’re ill. How could you manage?
The (unrealistic?) suggestions, and the negative responses are all part of the world the illness has created, and how it alters the perceptions of the family which lives there.

The impact on them all was terrible. They stayed together; they had that strength. But that toll is what the book is all about.

This is a very hard-won book: it articulates a lifetime of hurt and confusion, of medical misuse, and deliberate sponging on their pain by quack healers.

David (That name is too Jewish, an older relative tellingly said) was wanting to start his own family, and so was urged to broach the subject of inherited epilepsy, with his mother. The mountain of self-hurt and self-recrimination this opened the door onto, was terrible. All over again.

*

I was holding a woman as she had an ‘episode’, on the local bus. Others embarrassedly tried to give her back her purse that had gone on the floor. They thought she was lucid enough to understand this gesture.
Or were they just shut-out, and unable to empathise?
It was our stop. I got up, but she was too confused, still. Should I have helped her? She got off a little later – the bus stopped for her. Should I have walked her home?
How much independence did she need? And how, when, and how much help, support?
Is there an etiquette?
No, but there is humanity.

Sometimes the medical profession, medical terminology, can seem to overrule human response.
We see illness, not someone in trouble.

See also:

Mark Beyer:
https://wordpress.com/post/michael9murray.wordpress.com/1372

Achewood:
https://wordpress.com/post/michael9murray.wordpress.com/1379

Lynda Barry:
https://wordpress.com/post/michael9murray.wordpress.com/2146

Initially published in 1925, the book gained dramatic chiaroscuro from the Wall Street Crash.
A book about the new meteoric metropolis of New York, teetering on the edge of success – and collapse.

A modernist classic. This and others of the period influenced writing throughout Europe.
It’s the style: the blurb calls them filmic jump-cuts, which means the narrative consists of episodes, rather than linear stories. We jump from character to character, situation to situation, but within a clearly demarked radius of people.

This works for me – the book is a blend of fact and fiction. But to write of the tragedies of factual lives within a fictional framework, I find steps over the line somewhat . The suspension of disbelief so necessary for a good story; the distancing of an imagined depiction, gain our willingness to trust the author, to take on the book, to go with it. But to present faction – where are we, then?
John dos Passos gets around that with this style, this technique: there is no dwelling on catastrophe, we see it, feel it, oh yes, but we are not mired in it. Because it is part of the whole fabric.

And so, when we read the tragic interludes of Bud, aged 25, coming in from some upcountry farm, to lose himself here, we allow his story.
Bud could not find a job, no matter what he did. He asked an old guy, Any Jobs? The man replied, I’m 65, and worked since I was 5. I’ve never had a job.

Here we begin to glimpse it: how to survive in a city, especially one like this. You have to hustle. Day on day. Hustle.
If you’re like me, and never learned this, or learned it and hated its face, you’d go back home. Except Bud couldn’t.

Then there’s Ed Slatcher, accountant, whose wife died young, and left just him and his young daughter. He had the chance, a big sure-thing laid at his feet: this was it, the chance everyone gets to break it big. But he didn’t chose it; he stayed on as an accountant, even though he could see how fraudulent his clients were.
And here we see it again: Wall Street, waiting to happen.
If he’d gone for it, got the break, could they have got out before the Crash? It wasn’t in his character to either take the chance, or to get out.

John dos Passos was of Portugese heritage; he was far enough outside to see all sides to the city.
Where books of the same period dealt with the top ranks: The Great Gatsby, say, John dos Passos gives us the others as well, the French sailors jumping ship because this was the new metropolis. And so they wait tables, and dream.
In Europe, they said, you live well, but the pay is bad; here, the pay is good, but the life bad.
And so, between the two, what do you do? Like Congo, do you try both, continually? No, Congo stays – becomes successful, through bootlegging: rich.

This brings us to the language: the author gives us the accents, tones, the macro-languages of immigrants and older natives.

I was wondering about this: one book influenced by this was Alfred Doblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz.
How would you translate the Germanised English of Mr Zucher, into German? ‘A man vat is ambeetious must take chances. Ambeetions is vat I came here from Frankfort mit at the age of twelf years….

The point is, John dos Passos does not ridicule their speech, their poverty, their weaknesses, he gives us people we can recognise to a great extent.

I was reading Willa Cartha shortly before this, written about ten years previously (maybe the same time as this one, then?) and based in the gothic South, the characters are like caricatures, comic creations by comparison.
If we read Joseph Mitchell’s writing from the 1930s onwards, they work together, open up the period. Joe Gould’s Secret references the old bohemians of Greenwich Village.
Manhattan Transfer was their period – and we see into the actor’s world from the footlights, the back stage. It’s sordid, amoral even, but it’s full of life and energy.

Where G R R Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire is structured on character per chapter, Manhattan Transfer’s chapters illustrate an aspect of hustle/survival/life in N/Y. Each chapter continues several character stories, not necessarily sequentially on the same time frame. We move from character to character, setting to setting, almost seamlessly: the narrative voice carries and combines the movements, the currents, the flow.
The proliferation of characters, whose stars rise and fall, does bear close parallel at times.

Oh, and one of the earlier characters in the book is described as wearing a baseball cap, back to front.
1925.

PS

I would like to know what happened to Ed Slatcher – his daughter Ellen/Helena became a huge and popular stage actor, then editor. Her work was hugely successful; she was a New York beauty – but inside she never found what it was she needed.

There is no mention of organised crime – the Crime Wave that’s flagged up consists of isolated individuals.
Likewise, no mention of The Gangs of New York. Jimmy, as crime reporter, would know about those.

OAMENI ŞI MARIONETE/ MEN & PUPPETS by DANIEL DRAGOMIRESCU. Orizant Literar Contemporan, Bibliotheca Universalis, 2017

 This is a dual-language publication, produced by the excellent and indefatiguable Contemporary and Literary Horizon, of Romania. For their background, see:

https://revistamulticulturala.wordpress.com/

http://contemporaryhorizon.blogspot.co.uk/

Every so often a book comes along that makes you feel good to be alive. This is one of those.

The best books broaden and deepen our sense and understanding of the world. I was going to go on and write ‘and add destinations to our bucket list.’ But no, these best books have already taken us there; we feel we know the places, the people, with our hearts. The place? North-eastern and central Romania.

I feel privileged to have a copy of Men and Puppets, by Daniel Dragomirescu. The book is a collection of reminiscences, autobiographical snippets, and is well worth the time and effort in getting hold of. Elegantly presented, and on the whole, well translated, this is part of a series of books by Orizant Contemporan Literar. All are dual-language, and by writers from many countries.

Daniel Dragomirescu grew up in the north-eastern Vaslui region of Romania, in the 1950s and 60s. He writes of life from the inside; the autobiographical angle gives a necessarily limited view of the times, limited to one’s interests, activities, and to the villages and small towns of the time.

Big Politics, the State, the Eastern Bloc, are not words or concepts of everyday life. He does come up against them (A Meeting with Cerebrus); they are also, on another level, a basic part of that life. Yet they are everywhere, especially for the generations from before the War, his parents’ and grandparent’s generations. It is they who have to watch what they say.
We see the unquestioned fate of pre-War bourgeois families, in their disgrace (Sandals). All is accepted as a part of life. The State restrictions have their circumnavigations, but they can be suddenly enforced due to the arbitrariness and fickleness of officials (At the Nadovari Camp). But they are not ‘officials’, they are people one’s father might know from school, from ‘before’ – their fickleness is the fickleness of everybody, everywhere.
We read also a first-hand account of a devastating earthquake hitting Bucharest. People at their most vulnerable; we read also the hidden threats by people.

One of my favourite stories, Marilena, has its own ways of handling the hopes, passions and lost opportunities that are always with us. And this is one of the heartening aspects of the stories: how love, hope of love, arranged love that could grow into itself, are always a part of our lives, our world. These things are instantly recognisable, and they go to the core of who we are.

In the new Romania religion once again plays a major role.
This may surprise us, and yet, as Fish Borscht makes clear (to my mind the only story that doesn’t gel), religion never really went away. Even this story is full of the riches of the lived life, the times, the mind-set of the period.
The role of religion is a curious one; there are many expostulations to God, in the stories. These are post-Communist.
I wonder do they read as a little self-consciously apparent?
Are the stories part of the new movement to re-establish a continuous Romanian identity, that had just been interrupted for a time?

What becomes clear through the reading is the seamless identity we all wear and are part of: here we all are, with all our hopes, woes and lapses of understanding. The details may differ, but the responses are so very recognisable. And because we can identify, our hearts are also in these stories, as we respond to the same things they did.

The last chapter, Typewriter, brings the whole book into focus. I had begun to wonder at the book’s title, Men and Puppets. Well, here it was, spelled out.
I wrote, above, how the fickleness of officials is the fickleness of man; there is the fickleness of officials themselves, though. I also wrote of the State being just the background to people’s lives. So it was, but as they took on more responsibility, became adults, the State became a major interference in their lives. Take Ceausescu’s decree that all typewriters should be officially registered.
It smacks of a Nazi-era dictat, and it is little surprise we find a militia chief admiring Nazi-era tactics.
After the Fall of Ceausescu, the militia excuse themselves as puppets of the regime. Officials, militia, puppets, anything rather than just ordinary people.

Daniel Dragomirescu has a masterful technique. The use of the motif of his meeting with a stray dog in a cemetery, in A Meeting with Cerebrus, becomes the key for opening up the whole part of his life at that period. It is this mastery that is the secret, it works behind the scenes to bring the chapters to life.

A most enjoyable book, full of the fears, hopes, loves and doubts of lives.

The 2012 edition of Roadside Picnic, by Arkadi and Boris Strugatsky, carries an Afterword by Boris.

See my earlier review:
https://michael9murray.wordpress.com/2014/12/14/roadside-picnic/

For the book:
https://www.amazon.co.uk/Roadside-Picnic-Boris-Strugatsky/dp/0575093137/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1519149548&sr=1-1&keywords=roadside+picnic

In this Afterword he describes the chequered career of the book: it was by no means a straight-forward publication. Initially the story was published, unscathed, in the Leningrad Avrora literary journal, 1971, and was then put forward for inclusion in an anthology, Unintended Meanings, consisting of two of their earlier stories, and to be published in 1972. Here the problems began.
The anthology was to be published by a company called Young Guard. The YG belief was that science-fiction literature was intended only for children and teenagers. Adult themes, and especially language, what the editors listed as ‘Comments Concerning Immoral Behaviour of the Heroes’, ‘Comments Concerning Physical Violence’, etc,  had to be eradicated. And there were 18 pages of these.
There are times, places, to negotiate, and times to stick to one’s guns.

The brothers put together a dossier of all these problems and obstacles, thinking to put it out somehow – by samizdat, if nothing else. There were months between replies to their queries, years of wrangling. Then…
Arkadi died, the Wall fell, Communism… faded away.
And the dossier became redundant. The departments, the people causing the problems, also, faded away. Perspective came in. And they all seemed little more than a plague of gnats, biting flies, blown away by the first change in the weather.

Take note, ye bureaucrats: this you are also.

The book opens with a radio interview. The person being interviewed is a Dr Pillman. He introduced the Pillman Radiant. 13 years previously had been the Visitation: 6 spots in an arc across the surface of the earth had experienced the phenomena of the Visitation. One hit Dr Pillman’s home town. It left catastrophe in its wake.
Dr Pillman extrapolated back from impact points to an area in space in the Cygnus constellation: Deneb, the main star. Except, he is at pains to point out, he did not discover this, it was actually a schoolboy, and published by a college student.

What actually do you do? the interviewer later asked  His reply is interesting: for the last 2 years he has been a consultant in the UN  Commission on the Problems of the Visit.
Roughly speaking, we make sure that no one else outside the International Institute gets access to the alien marvels discovered inside the Zones.
Couldn’t you be rather more specific? the interviewer asks.
Wouldn’t you rather move on to the arts?
Dr Pillman hedges, and also distances himself from the Visitation. Even when it had hit his home town. This is interesting.

Why is this ‘interesting’? Because his comments  and evasions make him out to be something of a policing authority. I had taken him initially as a kind of KGB man, but he turns up later as a Nobel Laureate – not the exposure for a secret policeman.
For the Soviet publishers all books for young people had to be clearly moralistic and
didactic. The story admits the existence of such agents, and the part they play in society. Did the YG editors read this as giving him the thumbs up, by having him be at pains to point out the origin of the research that he had taken credit for? Dr Pillman as a Good Citizen?
Except you cannot find a shiftier character in the book, and that is saying a lot.

This, also, sets the scene for the roles of the ‘stalkers’, who enter the Zones to collect articles for sale on the Black Market. This is a highly dangerous activity. Guards are entitled to shoot to kill.
Not only that, but the dangers of the places are beyond imagining.
The Institute has highly detailed aerial photographs to guide patrols and official collection visits. They prove useless. as we see in the book: effects are not static, they wander. Some are invisible.

Which leads to:
I was also particularly interested in another aspect of the book, the attitude to language in dealing with the unknown. There is the language of the physicists, the ‘eggheads’, and of the stalkers.
– Incidentally, this was the first time the English word ‘stalker’ was introduced into Russian/Soviet language and literature  They pronounced it ‘stulker’.

On an official collection visit to the Zone, Red, the ex-stalker and now lab aide, and his laboratory boss Kirill Panov, come across a wandering phenomenon. It is invisible; but it affects gravity in its locality, creating an extra-strong temporary force.
‘Got it. You look for graviconcentrates?’
………………………………………………………………
………………………………………………………………
They are like that, the eggheads. The most important thing for them is to come up with a name.
The next move forward they make, and Red stops them, breaks into a sweat.
Instinct. Gut reaction.
Instinct versus knowledge. Knowledge is the aerial photographs; instinct tells them if they move forward from that spot they’re doomed.
Just before this:
Over the pile of ancient trash, over the colourful rags and broken glass, drifts a tremor……. Damn these eggheads, a great job they did; ran their road down there amid the junk!
What can be seen and measured, and what cannot be. The road was plotted by markers previous teams had positioned. It was a safe route.
For a stalker there were no safe routes: each venture was a life-and-death challenge, literally. They had no maps. They went always at night (they could be seen and shot during the day), and on hands and knees, mostly, feeling, sensing, their way onward.

This also introduces the theme of the limits of knowledge: here was an alien technology that made no sense to our sciences; it wiped our knowledge off the board. Which left you with… the instincts of the stalker. Science gets you killed.
You think, ah, that’s a graviconcentrate – and the book notes how blasé the scientists become once they name a phenomenon. But it remains deadly: that is its only definite, dependable, feature.
The stalkers call it a bug trap – to be caught in that invisible, wandering, anomaly is to be squashed flat by the gravitational field. How do they know? They have seen its effects on fellow stalkers.
The scientist’s phrase merely describes; the stalker’s phrase expresses its impact.

Arkadi’s background was that of editor and writer, and Boris that of scientist. Both, highly trained and experienced in their fields. And yet to them, language could not compete with reality.
Was it that the Soviet experience had devalued the meaningfulness of words to such an extent, that they could no longer be relied on to carry content? Be careful who one talks to: communication became a nuanced trade of possible meanings.

Politically, we can read here, that the Visitation introduces something way off the Marxist-Leninist map, far away from their neat dialectics of history. We read here of highly successful cultures, civilisations, that do not owe anything to Marxist-Leninism (or Capitalism). It is… the unthinkable – in both science, and (pseudo-)scientific political theories.

As unthinkable, it is also nameless.
And Arkadi and Boris bow neither to psychological, political, nor scientific certainties here. It not a Freudian Unthinkable, nor a scientific or sociological category-without-a-name.

The artefacts obviously have a purpose to their owners, but that is at present unknowable to us.
This is reality, and neither science nor theory can cope with it, because they exercise retrospective assessments.
This is reality-in-the-field, and the human person is naked before it. In the last resort, the approach to the golden ball, the stalker must shed everything. The result of the ‘wish’ is a judgement, of a kind, on his capability to embrace his humanity.

In time, we learn, even the scientist invent their own jargon for the artefacts they handle, try to investigate. Their jargon has a wry amusement, a bleak humour. It expresses, rather than describes. It expresses their frustration with the artefacts – they can use of them, oh yes, but have no idea what their proper and original uses were. The Visitors remain as unknown in purpose, intent and being as they always did.

But this is, after all, only a sci-fi novel.

Red looks lovingly into his daughter’s eyes, they are by then perfectly round, and the iris’ now completely dark; he lovingly strokes the long golden brown fur on her face.
The indications are that she is reverting to an earlier form of evolution, due to the effects of the Zone, and Red’s constant activities there.
The bodies that emerge from the cemetery, walled by the Zone, appear to be  formed from basic organic material. They have reverted to their earlier existence, as walking, breathing bodies.
This reversion theme also crops up in the ‘episode’ Red experiences crossing the road. He loses sight of the street, the ordinary world, instead he sees everything in terms of basic shapes: cones, cubes, spheres (Cezanne would have loved it).

The last part, 4, is Red’s quest – not quite for the Golden Fleece, but the fabled Golden Sphere, which grants human wishes – is mostly in the form of internal dialogue. And the Strugatskys convey with great expertise his troubled state of mind, his struggles with himself, and for some form of clarity.
His much-loved daughter, ‘the monkey’, now has been diagnosed as no longer human; his dead father ‘lives’ with them, responding occasionally to stimulus. Both daughter and father howl into the night at times. All the neighbours have gone – they are isolated, for all the money from black-market trading. We learn how Red tried all ways to keep them, get the children to play with ‘monkey’, how his friend even tried to bribe people to stay.

What would his wish be? What is certain, is that he had no intention of coming out alive.

Only a sci-fi novel.
I do feel, though, that the undifferentiating pessimism undermines the classic status of the book. The book references Kurt Vonngegut.
Was this the first time the classic certainties of the time had been openly questioned? Is that its originality?