Conrad, Krasznahorkai, Joso

My eye seems no worse after the recent laser surgery , so I’m able to post some brief updates again.

Conrad Heart of Darkness coverJoseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness. Norton Critical Edition, ed. Robert Kimbaugh. 3rd edition, 1988. First published 1899. Each time I reread this novella I’m more puzzled by it. It’s been interpreted in such varying, often conflicting ways, as the essays at the end of the Norton edition show. From Achebe’s scorching criticism of Conrad’s possibly unconscious racism and endorsement of white European supremacy, to the Marxist, Freudian, symbolic and other approaches, it defies a single, unitary approach. As the introduction by CB Cox to my old Dent’s Collected edition has it, ‘there is no key which will unlock the secret meaning’ [of HofD].

The narrative-within-a-narrative by Marlow famously describes his storytelling method – he eschews the ‘direct simplicity’ of the usual ‘yarns of seamen’:

…to him the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze…

Is Kurtz a monster and a devil, a madman who believes himself a deity who has succumbed to ‘the fascination of the abomination’?  Or the ‘universal genius’ that his acolytes worship (like the bizarre Russian ‘harlequin’ – therein lies perhaps another line of political interpretation)? Kurtz’s notorious postscript to his report to the sinister “International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs” highlights the generally held view that there is a distressing element of racism in the story: ‘Exterminate all the brutes’ is pretty unequivocal. Or is Kurtz, as some claim, referring there to the brutal European ‘pilgrim’ colonisers, greedily extracting the ivory and other precious treasures the ‘dark continent’ provides them? The imagery of darkness, fog, haze, etc., constantly elides and obscures the narrator’s perspective, and the reader’s.

It was after reading this disturbing novella that I turned to the Multatuli, mentioned in my previous post, for its very different, very clear attack on colonial exploitation by the rapacious Europeans.

Krasznahorkai Satantango coverLászló Krasznahorkai, Sátántangó. Tuskar Rock, 2012. Translated (brilliantly) by George Szirtes. First published in Hungarian 1985. Another slippery, elusive narrative. The epigraph from Kafka sets the tone of this surreal, nightmarish fable-fantasy. It also has the dark, sardonic (gallows) humour of Beckett – and a couple of enigmatic, sinister-clown central characters who wouldn’t seem out of place in Waiting for Godot.

In ‘mercilessly long autumn rains’, lashed by winds, a desolate rural community that resembles the corporate, pointless bleakness of a communist-era Hungary collective farm languishes and rots, neglected, despairing. The ‘stinking yellow sea of mud’ deepens, the roads turn to rivers. The scheming, avaricious inhabitants gather in the dingy bar. There they drown their sorrows and sins, flirt and bicker. Until that strange pair arrives: Irimiás and Petrina, thought to have died but now restored to life: resurrection men. The villagers’ hopes rise: they will provide salvation from their ‘years of “wretched misery”, break the damp silence’. They will lead them in an escape to a better, more fulfilling life. Except, unsurprisingly in this topsy-turvy world, nothing works out as expected. Maybe this returning pair are treacherous spies, tricksters or devilish emissaries. Definitely not the Messiah.

Written in long, loping sentences, each chapter is one unbroken paragraph. Part One is numbered I-VI, Part Two, VI-I. The effect is mesmerising, constantly surprising, subverting the superficial familiarity of the drab scene. That mirror structure, like tango moves, provides a hypnotic, dance-like feel.

Is the novel an allegory about storytelling, fabulising ‘reality’? The drunken village doctor spies on his neighbours, making notes that become this narrative. And it’s a dystopian account of an absurd world that outdoes reality in its weirdness, temporal fluidity and defiance of rational thought, with the illusion of ‘Resurrection’ and perhaps redemption as tantalisingly elusive as a phantom tango dance partner.

It’s a fascinating, absorbing work. It was filmed in 1994 by Béla Tarr (seven hours long and, appropriately, in black and white).

Joso From 7 to Sea coverJayne Joso, From Seven to the Sea. Seren Books (an imprint of Poetry Wales Press), 2019. Some while ago I posted on this writer’s Soothing Music for Stray Cats. This one is very different, and better.

On her seventh birthday Esther is taken by her not particularly attentive mother to live in a seaside town (somewhere in Wales, it seems) with her new father – a grumpy control freak who clearly hates kids. The classic ogre stepfather. The imaginative child can’t settle in her new school, where it’s debatable who’s nastier: the pupils or the teacher. Sensibly she takes to skipping classes to visit her new friend Pete, a kind, grizzled old seadog she encounters in the harbour. She loves going out to sea with him in his boat. He’s the father she craves.

Various mishaps (some dogs have a hard time) darken spirited little Esther’s world, but it’s a touching fairytale where it’s evident that things will work out ok for her. The sea will always be there to cradle her.





Jayne Joso, ‘Soothing Music for Stray Cats’.

A common thread in my work seems to be an interest in debating what constitutes the right place and space in which to feel at ease, be it psychological, geographical, architectural… In Soothing Music for Stray Cats the main character dreams of finding better ways of negotiating his sense of the disconnectedness of modern life alongside the loss of a friend through suicide. This he attempts to do as he wanders the streets of London finding himself lost at times, at odds with the environment, the urbanity, and at times quite literally with the ground beneath his feet. I wanted to write about someone who managed to walk away from a life that was leaving them feeling empty.

Published by the Welsh imprint Alcemi, 2009

cover Soothing MusicI came to this novel – and the writer who was new to me, which is always a potentially exciting development – via this piece in 3:am.

Mark Kerr attends the funeral of his old school friend Jim, who’d failed to resist the siren call of the open window on the 20th floor of a tower block, and jumped. Mark consequently feels guilty that he wasn’t a better friend to him.

The rest of the novel portrays what it is that impels and prevents us from responding to that call, while acknowledging that we all hear it. That’s the strength of this novel. It’s a fitfully moving dramatisation of a young, mixed-up man’s attempt to make some kind of sense out of the deracinated mess of his life.

It’s also a solid psychogeophrapical account of the big city, with its throbbing trains in subterranean tunnels, brutal architecture and feral or privileged inhabitants, who subsist like rats and lords in the same locales.

Here’s Mark meeting the yuppie guy who’s advertised for a flat-sitter:

While I waited for him to answer I lit up again and wondered how come he was living in a flat and not a house, the guy was loaded, that much I do remember. He was born loaded. Those were his defaults: born loaded, and being a dick; often, and this is unfortunate, but it’s true to say, the two go hand-in-hand, the result being that the bastard winds up with an easy life and is termed, scientifically, as being: an easylife – and a ‘Class A’ tosser. I’d barely inhaled when the door shot open and Ron greeted me with this hearty hug as though in the past we’d been really close mates, and I suppose I should have felt pleased…

And so on. Chatty, engaging, but just a little too bigoted; the blend of low and high registers doesn’t quite somehow ring true. Yes, Ron is a tosser, but Mark is far too pleased with his superior status: his taste in music, his vaguely new-age politics and world view. He doesn’t really have any convictions; he’s a reactionary, a political naïve. My problem with this narrator is Mark thinks he’s cool. Not easy to pull this off in a novel. Joso makes a valiant effort, and very nearly succeeds. She’s good on tossers, that’s for sure. And street rats and depressed samurai student cricketers.

The title comes from a jazz album by Edgar Jones. ‘Nice one’, as Mark’s narrator suggests.

He’s found himself living in an unnamed northern town with a girl he calls Doris, a waif he’d taken pity on and now finds himself saddled with, and doing a dead-end job he hates, in a town he dislikes. Sound familiar? Jayne Joso taps with sporadic sensitivity into the ennui and existential angst of modern urban life in this novel.

It’s a touching love-story, too: he’s attracted to Jim’s sister, but lacks the capacity to express his feelings. He writes passionate love-postcards to her that he doesn’t send.

Redeeming features abound, and these give the novel its uplifting, heartening element: there are the ‘Three Musketeers’: a trio of street kids whom Mark befriends, and they rapidly shift from thieving, vandalising urban rats to supportive, vulnerable, equally distraught victims of the modern world’s crappiness. They redeem each other through kindness, cricket and zen.

The semi-literate narrator has an unusual penchant for (post-)modernist literature: references to Mrs Dalloway and Calvino abound. So how come his narrative voice is so limited?

Which brings me to …. the Japanese student, with his zen/samurai philosophy, another potential suicide. He’s a living exemplum of the old problem: why not end life that’s devoid of meaning? As Camus says, it’s the only logical alternative.

This is a charming, rather fey novel with a heart. I felt deeply moved at the end.

But I’d also have to say I have profound reservations about the demotic narrative voice, with its ‘me grandad’, ‘nice one’, ‘sorted’  street slang; ok, ‘a prize bleedin’ wanker’ is a justifiable way to describe such a person, but this is a dangerous approach – it appears at times too limited. Yes, I understand that’s how Mark would think and talk, but this rather patrician, over-literary reader finds this style too irritatingly colloquial. I love Huckleberry Finn, which employs the illiterate register through the filter of the senscient writer, in my view, more successfully, so  I don’t have a fundamental problem with novels written in a slangy voice; but I found the repeated tics of Mark’s repertoire a little tiresome – that and his industrial capacity for cigarettes: ‘then I Iit up’ is his refrain.

Don’t do this at home, kids.

An interesting novel, then. A voice to watch.