Havant

Adventures in Literature - Reviews

Note: These full-length reviews were written by group members during 'Lockdown' in 2020 and will continue whenever someone writes one! They were previously accessed individually in links from our monthly meeting notes. But in the interests of saving space and reducing the complexity of Havant U3A website they have been archived here. From September 2020 the shorter written reviews will be added to the monthly meeting notes, which will then be archived annually. I would have liked to have built a fully indexed archive to act as a resource for all U3A members but the U3A system is too basic to facilitate that!

Adventures in Literature - Archive- Adventures in Literature

Chris’ Book of the Year 2021, 'A Tale For The Time Being’ by Ruth Ozeki, 2013

This most remarkable novel manages to be a history book, a treatise on Zen Buddhism, a commentary on nature, climate change and the reality of war. Ozeki discusses suicide and bullying in Japan, the movement of currents in the Pacific Ocean—you’d think it would be too much but there is a solid, driving, suspenseful story that builds vivid pictures in your mind and fills you with wonder.

Ruth Ozeki reads the audiobook brilliantly. She has one of those barely accented North American voices that I could listen to for hours, which is just as well as it is a long book. It tells the story of a mysterious diary written by a troubled schoolgirl in Tokyo that is washed ashore on the Pacific North West coast of Canada, along with letters in Japanese and other objects including a Japanese aviator’s watch from WW2 and a brief journal in French. The objects, carefully sealed in a pink ‘Hello Kitty’ lunchbox and wrapped in polythene, is found by an American author, Ruth, living on a remote, sparsely populated island with her ecologist husband, Oliver. The diary is written in English on the blank pages of a carefully repurposed old copy of ‘À La Recherche du Temps Perdu’. Ruth and her husband speculate whether the package was lost as a result of the Tsunami in 2011, although from their knowledge of the currents and the ‘gyre’ it seems too soon.

She decides to read the diary at a pace that corresponds roughly with the pace at which it was written. Gradually, a connection seems to form between Ruth and Nau Yasutani. The girl is Japanese but was brought to the USA during the Dotcom bubble. Her father, a programmer, suddenly finds himself bankrupt when the bubble bursts so Nau is thrust back into Japanese school life at the vulnerable age of 14. The journal describes the awful ‘Ijime’ (extreme bullying) that is endemic in Japanese schools and Nau’s attempts to cope. She finds solace in the friendship of a prostitute but is ultimately calmed and given a new perspective when she is forced to spend her summer holidays with her grandmother, a 104 year old Buddhist nun in a remote Northern monastery.

Ozeki’s novel is a reflection on the nature of time and memory. There is even a discussion on Schrödinger’s cat paradox, quantum mechanics and the ‘Many Worlds’ theory but the tale is also full of magic and mythology. ‘A Tale For The Time Being’ is a magnificent achievement by a most remarkable woman. *****

Chris Shaw 28/12/2021

In order to Live – Yeonmi Park – A North Korean girl’s Journey to Freedom
Yeonmi Park was not dreaming of freedom when she escaped from North Korea. She didn't even know what it meant to be free. All she knew was that she was running for her life, that if she and her family stayed behind they would die - from starvation, or disease, or even execution.
This book is the story of her struggle to survive in the darkest, most repressive country on earth; her harrowing escape through China's underworld of smugglers and human traffickers; and then her escape from China across the Gobi desert to Mongolia, with only the stars to guide her way, and from there to South Korea and at last to freedom; and finally her emergence as a leading human rights activist - all before her 21st birthday.

Margaret Stanger 8.1.21

Wild Swans by Jung Chang
Through the story of three generations of women in her own family the grandmother given to the warlord as a concubine, the Communist mother and the daughter herself Jung Chang reveals the epic history of China's twentieth century.
I found it difficult to take in the scope at first, but it all changed with the descriptions of the authors own experiences. A coming of age story with a comprehensive history of China in the 20th and 21st century,the book tells hows the authors life affirming resilience explains a lot about China and its apparent contradictions.

Margaret Stanger 8.1.21

‘Swimming in the Monsoon Sea’ by Shyam Selvadurai, 2005

This is a coming of age novel set in Sri Lanka in 1980. The author draws on his own childhood experiences for many of the lovingly described details.

Amrith is a young teenager, brought up by his aunt and uncle since his parents died in a motorcycle accident when he was very young.

His life is privileged and after the British handed Ceylon back, his extended family, like many others, re-established many of the old customs whilst retaining the lifestyles of the colonisers. In culture and technology they have hardly moved on since the 1950s.

Amrith’s aunt and uncle treat him as a son.Their own, older daughters love him too but tease him for his seriousness. He does remember his mother and the intense relationship that they had, partly in response to his abusive alcoholic father. He also knows of the bitter feud between the two sides of the family.

When his despised uncle arrives in the town from Canada with his son, the family are reluctant to see them but agree for the the sake of the two boys spending the summer together. Despite the family feud, Amrith quickly develops an intense relationship with his brash cousin Niresh, two years his senior. He is deeply jealous of his sisters’ flirting and Niresh’s responses. Niresh is sophisticated enough to realise that his cousin has a crush on him and handles him sensitively.

This beautiful, quite romantic summer love story unfolds with lots of drama, passion and humour. The author draws out the contrasts between Western and Eastern culture sensitively and impartially. Niresh has to come to terms with his sexuality in a country where each of the different religions, including his own Christian family, condemn homosexuality. The novel has a satisfying conclusion.

After something of a drought, at last I’ve found a novel I enjoyed!

Chris Shaw 22.12.20

‘ADULTS’ by Emma Jane Unsworth, 2020

I listened to this, the audio version read by an excellent narrator, Chloe Massey. It is wickedly funny, with one-liners and put-downs that are apparently Unsworth’s forte but it is also well written and inventive. I’m not sure how the printed version looks but the impression is that the novel is written in a series of social media posts.

Jenny McLean is 35 and addicted to Instagram, Twitter etc. She is a columnist for a trendy online magazine; the office banter is hilarious. As the novel unfolds, voiced by Jenny, we discover that, due to unwise posts and falling numbers of ‘likes’, she is about to be ‘let go’ by the editor. Her lodgers are planning to move out en masse, fed up with being lampooned in Jenny’s column. Her boyfriend Art, a well-known photographer about town, and she are barely speaking to each other. Finally, in an hilarious scene where he catches her on her phone whilst they are having sex, Art decides Jenny and he must re-think their relationship. To cap it all, Jenny’s estranged mother turns up intending to stay and ‘re-bond’ with her daughter.

ADULTS is entertaining and serious, humorous and poignant. Perhaps if you don’t have a teenage granddaughter or arty friends to tempt you on to Instagram, you may not appreciate the subtlety and pitfalls of posting: the politics of ‘liking’ other people’s posts; of ‘unfollowing’ or the exact number of exclamation marks to use.

A novel of love, intimacy, womanhood and maturity—a cautionary tale for the generation obsessed with self-promotion. Delightful and redemptive.

Chris Shaw 1.11.20

‘Keeper’ by Jessica Moor, 2020

One of my problems, when confronted with the best writing and the best dramas on subjects like racism and domestic violence—and there is, naturally, a proliferation of this at the moment—is that I find them hard to stomach.

Reading the ‘Philosophy of Race’ by Naomi Zack and now ‘Keeper’, I am aware of how much I already know and understand through the news, plays, novels, documentaries and movies that I have seen over the last 50 years. There has been so much crime drama featuring violence towards women. ‘Thrillers’ in which are revealed the shocking truths about how, for one reason or another, men hurt women casually, clandestinely, psychologically, brutally where the emphasis is not so much on the experience of the women so much as the thrill of finding the killer.

I stopped reading (or rather listening) to ‘Keeper’ because I found it painful and because I know what has happened to Katie Straw. Why her body was found washed up on the banks of a fast-flowing river a mile and a half down from the town bridge where suicides have happened before. And why the residents of the women’s refuge where Katie lived and worked do not think it was suicide but murder.

Moore runs the novel in two parallel time streams, ‘then’ and ‘now’. Then, is when Katie, early thirties, having had a string of failed relationships, meets Jamie who she thinks might be ‘the one’. But my experience, seeing the tell-tale signs, is warning me that this is not love but control and I can sense the direction that this is heading. In the ‘now’, we follow the detective and his investigation, along with his callow fellow officer. Both a bit of a cliché: the inspector near retirement, hard-bitten but superficially sympathetic and used to dealing with abused women; the constable inexperienced and crass. We also learn about the lives of the women in the refuge. How each is different, different stories, some suffering racism as well as abuse. All revealing the subtle ways in which women can be controlled and how they appear to collude in their abuse.

This is why I had to stop. It might have been easier with a print copy. It is so well-written and so well read that I couldn’t bear to listen for more than a couple of chapters at a time. Of course, I may be entirely wrong about what has happened, but I don’t think that that is the point of the book. With a thriller, you want to keep going, you want to find out who the killer really is and why he did it. Even if Katie did commit suicide, even if Jamie was not the culprit, the gut-wrenching signs are there and for now, I have to look away.

Chris Shaw 16.11.20

‘The Vagrants’ by Yiyun Li, 2009 (audio edition 2011)

The inhabitants of Muddy River represent a microcosm of the appalling devastation and terror of Chines communism under Mao Zedong. The town, with its high-rise apartment blocks and factories is typical of the rapid expansion of industrialisation under the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward. Shattered by the purges, slaughter and the great famines brought about by Mao’s centralised policies, the people cling to their primitive superstitions, sexist traditions and arranged marriages. Families have been split by alternating zeal and betrayal. Ignorance and illiteracy are common.

Li runs parallel and interlocking stories. Teacher Ghu and his wife, devastated by the imprisonment and and execution of their daughter. The beautiful wife of a prominent local official who is also a well-known local TV announcer, who becomes involved in the illegal protest against the execution. The strange and touching love story between a disabled 12 year old girl and a young man of 18, the town wastrel and braggart who becomes tender and caring in her presence.

The unfolding tragedy is told with compassion and touches of humour. The style is unsentimental and compelling.

The history of Chinese Communism seems even more complex and brutal than that of the Soviet Union, even more inappropriate to the vast population of different ethnic groups, consisting largely of peasant farmers; Mao Zedong even more irrational than Stalin.

The author doesn’t go into all that. She was born in 1972 and after completing a compulsory year of service in the People’s Liberation Army, gained a degree at Peking University in 1996. She began living in America in 2000. So she lived under Mao (briefly) and Deng Xiaoping.

Chris Shaw 26.11.20

'10 minutes 38 seconds in this strange world' by Elif Shafak

For Leila, each minute after her death recalls a sensuous memory: spiced goat stew, sacrificed by her father to celebrate the birth of a yearned-for son; bubbling vats of lemon and sugar to wax women's legs while men are at prayer; the cardamom coffee she shares with a handsome student in the brothel where she works. Each fading memory brings back the friends she made in her bittersweet life - friends who are now desperately trying to find her . . .

Margaret Stanger

'The Red haired Woman' by Orhan Pamuk, 2016

This novel by the Turkish Nobel prize winning author brings a modern twist to themes based on ancient folk tales from Turkey, Persia and Greece - principally the Oedipus story of Sophocles.

A young man, living with his parents on the outskirts of Istanbul in the late 20th century has ambitions to go to university and become and writer. His father, a pharmacist, is a left-wing revolutionary so Lem and his mother are often left alone and are finally abandoned.

They calculates that if he works at a nearby bookstore he may earn enough money to take him to University. In the end he accepts an offer from a master well-digger to go to a village some distance from Istanbul for the summer where he will earn much more. His mother, knowing that it is hard and dangerous work, forbids him to go down the well.

In the evening, to relax after work, Lem and Master Mahmout go into the village to drink tea at a café. It is there that he sees the ‘red-haired woman’, who notices him and seems as interested in looking at him as he is in her. Eventually after following the woman and the people she is with, whom he assumes to be her family, they turn and confront him. He is invited to come and watch their performance at the tent in the village. He realises that they are a theatre group rather than a family and manages to slip away one evening to see the show - that Master Mahmout has forbidden him to watch. Over the weeks, working in the baking sun and shifting barrow loads of rock and earth—loads that are really too much for him—Lem develops an almost father-son relationship with the master well-digger.

He is very moved by the theatre performance and captivated by the woman. Afterwards she and Lem go for a drink and she tells him about some of the folk-tales, particularly that of Rostan and his son Sohrab, which has some parallels with the Oedipus myth. Drunk on Raki, Lem and the red-haired woman sleep together, Lem blundering back to the well site in the early hours.

From here, what with the plot twists and turns and Lem’s obsession with learning more about ancient myths, I suppose I felt it all somewhat contrived. Nevertheless, almost without realising it, I was drawn in. The book gives a vivid picture of life in modern Turkey, with its rapid commercialisation and property boom along with the tension between the religious and the secular, the wealth and the poverty.

When the theatre moves on, Lem becomes reckless. The well is already extremely deep and there seems no prospect of finding water. The landowner, who was hoping to develop the land for factories stops paying them but says they can carry on. Exhausted, Lem is sending the bucket down when it slips off the hook and falls on to the well-digger. Panicking, Lem rushes into town to get help but cannot seem to find anyone. Eventually, after not finding help and with no way of going down the well, he packs his belongings and goes home on the train, imagining that Mahmout is dead.

All the characters are linked; all are significant. I don’t want to give away the ending but in the final few chapters we realise how much like a classic Greek tragedy the whole story is.

I’d like to read more of his books.

Chris Shaw

‘My Name is Monster’, Katie Hale, 2019

A novel about a young woman who survives an armageddon. I perceive the theme to be how humans have lost touch with each other, with themselves and with the earth. It might also suggest a cleansing, a fresh start—a reboot that must include the most advanced technology combined with the power of the natural world. In a way, it is like all apocalypse stories, a struggle for survival with a glimmer of hope at the end. But it is not the same, no violence, no battle with zombies or killer rats, no shoot-em-ups.

Given the nickname Monster by her parents when she was a baby, with the sort of desperate humour that comes from sleepless nights with a fractious infant. As she grows older, she refuses to give up the name and it sticks. A badge of honour which she seems determined to live up to. Intelligent, introverted and antisocial, she rebuts all attempts to befriend her except for a younger boy who is in awe of her, and whom she tolerates as an obedient servant. She lives in a world of her own, taking things apart and fixing them. After a science degree she ends up working in a seed bank, a state of the art repository designed to preserve the world’s dwindling biodiversity. It is, in effect, a self-sustaining bunker, deep under the Arctic ice.

This, of course, is how she survives the nuclear bombs and biological weapons that bring a deadly plague, resistant to all vaccines. The science is vague; I like this, it doesn’t really matter for the story.

The description of her journey, a year later, from the Arctic base to the north coast of Scotland and her journey southwards, is tense and realistic. Her solitary nature, her survival instincts and her intelligence keep her alive as she avoids large towns and searches lonely farmhouses for canned and preserved food. At one point, she describes a city with a large shiny building that reminds me of The Sage Concert Hall in Gateshead. The place she finally settles, after a brief visit to her old childhood home, is a reasonably intact farm cottage on a hill overlooking an anonymous deserted city.

The language that the author uses is evocative and compelling. It is frank and pulls no punches; not sentimental but often beautiful.

On one of Monster’s foraging trips in the city she comes across a young girl, filthy, naked and feral, cowering in the corner of a deserted shop. She manages to coax her with food and takes her back to the farmhouse. As she teaches her to speak and live like a human, a relationship develops. She names the girl Monster and calls herself Mother. ‘Monster’, she explains means ‘survivor’ and ‘Mother’ means creator.

On one level, the story works because of some useful lucky breaks: the Arctic bunker; the locked storerooms at the back of food shops; the garden centre with its stock of seed ignored by looters, and so on. Then there’s the big shiny clinic powered entirely by solar energy that Mother raids for medicine—but which has a much more useful purpose for the young Monster.

But on another level it works because of the characters of the two women. One humourless, taciturn, inventive and dogged; the other bright, brave, hopeful, playful. And Monster has a buried secret hidden in strange dreams, memories she cannot reach and somehow connected with the ‘shiny woman’, a ‘soft woman’ and The Clinic. In the end, they are both survivors but it is the young Monster who is the creator.

There may be hope for humanity.

Chris Shaw, October 2020.

‘The Mars Room’ by Rachel Kushner

Romy Hall is in prison, serving two life sentences plus 6 years. Leaving behind her 7 year old son Jackson in the unreliable care of her mother, Romy recounts her early life and her life in prison. The audio version read by the author, in an almost deadpan voice, has a dreamlike and often nightmarish quality. This may be due partly to the fact I began the book as bedtime reading and often drifted off to sleep! Early on, I thought I may not be able to cope with it. Romy’s life is sordid, violent, cruel and unfair. Her job as a lap-dancer in the seedy ‘Mars Room’; the abusive relationships; her anger and despair, make uncomfortable listening. As I began to be drawn in by the simple and direct voice, the rich and evocative imagery and at times beautiful and poetic language, I realised that I was going to have to listen during the day—I was missing large sections!

The main drive of the novel is Romy’s acute observation. She misses nothing, everything is significant. She recounts the characters both in and out of jail and how they interact with her. They are often archetypal and unforgettable. I will need to buy a paper copy to keep track of their names.

Romy’s son Jackson—beautiful, bright and inquisitive—is torn away from her; she has no rights. When her mother dies she loses touch with him. Eventually, after several years she discovers that the American justice system no longer recognises her as the mother. Lawyers are useless unless you have money. The prison’s attitude is, “You made your choices”, they will not help.

The characters:
A crooked cop, a customer of the Mars Room—bribery, murders, rape, torture, theft—is finally caught when a victim manages to bring him to light. The prison system is supposed to protect him from the other prisoners, the precautions are laughable. He is beaten almost to death and emerges brain damaged from a coma.
The stalker who cannot believe that Vanessa the lap dancer, Romy, is not in love with him, that he is merely paying her to be interested in him, tracks down her home address. In terror, she beats him to death with an iron bar.
The transexual. Huge, not recognised as a man by the penal system, he must be kept in a female prison. The other prisoners respect him and treat him as a man. He befriends Romy and watches her back.

Nearly all the women, 3000 in Romy’s prison, are victims, however bad their crime. They did not make ‘bad choices’, their choices were zero: fight to survive; take shitty low-paid jobs; get exploited by drug dealers, drug addicted partners or the police. Public defenders are hopeless; underfunded, superficial and prejudiced. The penal system, vast and industrialised, is cruel and inhumane. Rehabilitation consists solely of dreary work in the prison workshops. The library contains nothing but tattered charity shop paperbacks. Prisoners have to hustle, do deals, take huge risks merely to survive. The guards are uneducated, corrupt and vicious. This is the reality. Commit a minor infringement of the draconian rules and find yourself in solitary confinement in a tiny cage for weeks, months on end.

The end of the novel is almost unbearably poignant. Stunning!

A candidate for my book of the year, ‘The Mars Room’ was shortlisted for the Booker price in 2018. Chris Shaw

Some of the appalling things that humans do to each other are often classed as ‘inhumane’ but the truth is that no other species subjects its fellow creatures to such violence, terror and misery as do humans.

'The Cyclist Conspiracy' by Svetislav Basara

I have been reading a book written by Serbian writer Svetislav Basara, called The Cyclist Conspiracy. It is without doubt the weirdest book I have ever read and it is very hard to actually describe it. So here goes. It is written as if it is the result of research and refers to manuscripts, letters, poems which purports to reveal this mysterious sect. The sect is called The Little Brothers of the Evangelical Bicylists of the Rose Cross. They meet in dreams, gain esoteric knowledge from comtemplation of the bicycle and seek to move in and out of history, manipulating events. In some cases the members are not aware they are part of the sect. They can communicate with the dead through dreams. They intervene in historical events such as the Assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and even influence a story of Sherlock Holmes. It intertwines with threads of waking and dreams involving the present, the past and the future. If you see a bicycle from above it looks like a cross which the sect claims represents God and death. The book is heavy on religion, Freud, politics. The nearest thing I can come up with is that it is sending up Religion, Masons, Society, Psychoanalysism and conspiracy theorists. Wow. The strange thing is I was compelled to read it to the end even though I was left turning myself inside out to understand it.

Sharon Holden 13.9.20

Adventures in Literature - Archive- Adventures in Literature

'Café Europa' by Slavenka Drakulić 1994-95, Abacus English edition 1996.

It is not a specific café, although there are several Europa Cafés in the former Communist Eastern European Countries. Western European countries and their wealth and sophistication were the envy of Eastern Europeans during Communist rule.

The book is a collection of essays, musings on people, events and attitudes by Drakulić who was born in Istria in 1949. She was comparatively lucky to be born a Croatian in the former Yugoslavia as, like her compatriots she enjoyed more freedom to travel and buy goods from abroad, during the more liberal regime under Tito. She also married a Swedish man and obtained dual citizenship.

The complexities of trying to keep body and soul together under Communism are well known from Russian literature; Drakulić manages to convey both the humour and tragedy of daily life, of smuggling goods like toilet paper, jeans and cigarettes, along with the guilt at having access to things that people in neighbouring countries could only dream about.

She recalls the anger and humiliation of crossing the border back into Croatia: the indignities to which returning citizens are subject, compared with the ease at being waved through without formalities when entering Sweden.

But the stories become darker as the book progresses. The feelings of helplessness at the events of the war and the complicity of the Croations in atrocities and betrayals. I’m going to have to read this again to pick up the nuances, which passed me by during the time this was happening. I need to read more of the history of Croatia to understand what lies behind this awful turmoil. One of the keys is the story, ’People From The Three Borders’. Istria is largely Croatian but also has an Italian part and a Serbian part. Many people play the system. They are ‘Istrian’ when they fill out the census forms, even though there is no such category listed. They refuse to be pinned down and some even have three passports. They can go shopping in whichever country particular foods are cheapest.

Theoretically, all this has changed in the last 25 years since the book was written, as Croatia is now in the EU. During the wars in the former Yugoslavia, Western Europe steadfastly refused to become involved. Croatians could not understand this, were they too not European now? Why were they ignoring the atrocities of Neofascists? I also did not realise that during WW2, when Croatia was occupied by the Nazis, Croatia set up a fascist government and rounded up Jews, Serbians, gypsies and dissidents into concentration and extermination camps. When Russia liberated Croatia, the government simply continued, adopting Marxism as its new creed and retaining Tito as president.

Chris Shaw 8.9.20

'The Cellist of Sarajevo' by Steven Galloway

This novel is set during the 1990s Siege of Sarajevo. It tells the story of three people trying to survive in a city rife with the extreme fear of desperate times, and of the sorrowing cellist who plays undaunted in their midst.

One day a shell lands in a bread line and kills twenty-two people as the cellist watches from a window in his flat. He vows to sit in the hollow where the mortar fell and play Albinoni’s Adagio once a day for each of the twenty-two victims. The Adagio had been re-created from a fragment after the only extant score was firebombed in the Dresden Music Library, but the fact that it had been rebuilt by a different composer into something new and worthwhile gives the cellist hope.

Meanwhile, Kenan steels himself for his weekly walk through the dangerous streets to collect water for his family on the other side of town, and Dragan, a man Kenan doesn’t know, tries to make his way towards the source of the free meal he knows is waiting. Both men are almost paralyzed with fear, uncertain when the next shot will land on the bridges or streets they must cross, unwilling to talk to their old friends of what life was once like before divisions were unleashed on their city. Then there is “Arrow,” the pseudonymous name of a gifted female sniper, who is asked to protect the cellist from a hidden shooter who is out to kill him as he plays his memorial to the victims.

Margaret Stanger 5.9.20

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‘Novel 11, Book 18’, by Dag Solstad, 2001

English translation by Sverre Lyngstad 2008

Dag Solstad is a well-known Norwegian writer, acclaimed intellectually but not, as far as I can tell, all that popular.

This is a very strange, introspective and somewhat depressing novel. Its theme seems to be one he has pursued before, certainly in the book, ’T Singer’, 1999.

At the point this story begins Bjorn Hansen has just turned 50 and he starts to look back. 18 years ago he left his wife and 2 year old son in Oslo to pursue his lover to a small out of the way town called Kongsberg. Eventually he also leaves his successful civil servant’s job and becomes Town Treasurer. He and his lover become the centre and focus of the local amateur dramatic group—she as its star actress, he as its promoter and staunch backstage worker.

Bjorn Hansen is obsessed with the meaning of his life and his sense of personal identity. He is constantly reexamining his relationships with other people. Eventually everything appears stale and meaningless, his lover having lost her charm. After 14 years together he leaves her and rents an apartment of his own.

During the 4 years prior to the opening of the story he devises a dangerous and life-changing plan. We are not told what this is but he seeks and eventually persuades his friend, a doctor, to help him. Then, out of the blue he is contacted by his son and agrees to let him stay whilst he studies at the university.

It is a tense and awkward arrangement especially since his son exhibits narcissistic behaviour which masks his loneliness and lack of friends. It seemed to me that the son might be autistic but Bjorn tries to get on with him despite constantly analysing and criticising him.

When the son has returned from Oslo after the Christmas holidays, Bjorn executes his plan which involves attending a trade delegation in Vilnius in Lithuania. The tension builds and when the details of the plan emerge I find it quite shocking and inexplicable. A bizarre turn of events that changes his life and relationships permanently.

It is about a man constantly striving for something and not achieving it. In a sense, an existentialist novel about the meaninglessness of life. I worked my way through it but it gave me the shivers!

A Journey to the End of the Russian Empire by Anton Chekov

RUSSIA - Alison White

I looked on the web for ideas of more modern Russian authors and the one that came up was Andrei Bely and the book mentioned was Petersburg now one of my daughters had given me this book and I had never read it so I thought I would try it. It is 500 pages long and I got to page 100 and realised we hadn't really got anywhere. These hundred pages were about a government official called Apollonovich and about him getting up in the morning and going to his office and a bit about his hapless son Nikolai. So, I stopped reading it. I don't know what happened as I haven't finished it but evidently the son Nikolai is caught up in revolutionary politics and is assigned the task of assassinating his father.

So, having spent almost a week trying to get to grips with it I then found a book byAnton Chekov - 'A Journey to the End of the Russian Empire'

†his is from a Penguin Series called Penguin Great Journeys. It is only 100 pages long and it tells the journey by Chekov leaving his comfortable and successful life in Moscow in 1890 to travel to the desolate far eastern island of Sakhalin. He describes his journey to Sakhalin through the Russian Empire across Siberia in a series of letters from which the first part of the book was taken. Sakhalin was used by the Russian government as a penal colony for the most dangerous prisoners.
The book ‘The Island: A Journey to Sakhalin’ was first published in 1893 and the second part of this book is extracted from this account.

A Journey to the End of the Russian Empire by Anton Chekov

Part 1:

The letters are to friends and family and describe various escapades on the journey in some ways it could have been written today except that he was travelling on land by horse-drawn carriages

The descriptions are very vivid and one can easily imagine the journey with all the little anecdotes mentioned.
The ship had run aground (P23), but in lucky chance there was a band on board, so there was an excellent party.
On board people can say what they want as no one to arrest you and nowhere to exile people.
The party was the high point: - lower points: - sharing a cabin with an opium smoking Chinese man, learns about Japanese prostitutes in Blagoveshchensk and witnesses various punishments on Sakhalin.
Crossing Amur was like Switzerland. Saw gold prospecting.
The descriptions are such that is could be a contemporary travelogue. Chekov was a very accomplished short story writer
P32 English who control China and building strongholds everywhere - found this interesting

Part 2

Chapter 1 He sailed from Siberia across the Tarta Straight to the mouth of the Duca where the Alexandrovsk command post is situated. The officer in charge of the soldiers said that he had no right visit the penal settlement as he was not a government official.  Crossing the straight Chekov could see the island was on fire. Much of the island is covered in forest and these were on fire and there was a lot of smoke. The island had a number of railway lines for transporting the provisions to the penal colonies which were distributed throughout the island 

Chapter 2 The Prison Settlements of Northern Sakhalin
The population of the island consists of convicts and the government employees looking after them and then exiles and those who have completed their sentences and followers of the convicts.
The settlements consist of homesteads with co-owners or half owners and few women and a few legally married families there are free women who follow their husbands to the colony
Most of the entire population of the island seem to play cards and they played Faro and they play for winnings such as the government Rations, their smoked fish and their clothing.  P. 92
Chekov went on a trip with a general and the commandant of the Tymovsk district and they visited the north part of the island. They were doing an inventory and checking that everything was in order and being run in the correct way. The journey was fairly hazardous and quite a bit had to be undertaken on foot in muddy countryside, staying in out of the way places.

Chapter 3 describes the Gilyak people. They live in yurts and wonder around northern Sakhalin they are dwindling in number as they migrate to the mainland. They are neither Mongols nor Tongass but belong to some unknown race which may once have been powerful and ruled all of Asia. They are a strong stocky build and short of stature. They have a summer yurt and a winter yurt. The yurts are preferable to the huts the convicts live in.

Chapter 4: The Morality of Sakhalin The convicts are not treated well and they are really slaves. However, they are lying, cunning, cowardice, meanness, informing, robbery, every kind of secret vice such is the arsenal of these slave like people and they employ these tactics to get out of some jobs or to get a slice of bread. One day they stole a live ram off a ship and the barge had not left the ship but the ram could not be found.
He reported on the treatment of convicts – harsh, not in line with current legislation. Prisoners and those who inflict punishment become hardened. Description of flogging and execution.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and then researched into Chekov’s life, which is also fascinating.
In 1884, Chekhov qualified as a physician, which he considered his principal profession though he made little money from it and treated the poor free of charge.
In 1884 and 1885, Chekhov found himself coughing blood, and in 1886 the attacks worsened, but he would not admit his tuberculosis to his family or his friends. He continued writing for weekly periodicals, earning enough money to move the family into progressively better accommodations.
Early in 1886 he was invited to write for one of the most popular papers in St. Petersburg, Novoye Vremya (New Times), owned and edited by the millionaire magnate Alexey Suvorin, who paid a rate per line double Leykin's and allowed Chekhov three times the space. Suvorin was to become a lifelong friend, perhaps Chekhov's closest.
In 1887, exhausted from overwork and ill health, Chekhov took a trip to Ukraine, which reawakened him to the beauty of the steppe.
In autumn 1887, a theatre manager named Korsh commissioned Chekhov to write a play, the result being Ivanov, written in a fortnight and produced that November.[45] Though Chekhov found the experience "sickening" and painted a comic portrait of the chaotic production in a letter to his brother Alexander, the play was a hit and was praised, to Chekhov's bemusement, as a work of originality.[46] Although Chekhov did not fully realise it at the time, Chekhov's plays, such as The Seagull (written in 1895), Uncle Vanya (written in 1897), The Three Sisters (written in 1900), and The Cherry Orchard (written in 1903) served as a revolutionary backbone to what is common sense to the medium of acting to this day: an effort to recreate and express the "realism" of how people truly act and speak with each other and translating.

Alison White

‘The Strawberry Girl’, by Lisa Stromme, 2016

The Strawberry Girl is set in 1893, in a small fishing town on the shores of the Oslo Fjord at the Southern tip of Norway.

This is not a year chosen at random. It is a year in which Edvard Munch could have rented a house and studio in Åsgårdstrand, a seaside resort popular in summer with the well to do of Oslo, or Christiania, as it was known then. Munch did in fact buy the cottage in 1898 and spent summers there painting, often with other artists and ‘bohemians’ as he did in the story. The Strawberry Girl, Johanne Lien, is an invented character but may have been a real girl that the author, in notes, says was based on the ‘Girl With Currants’ by Hans Heyerdahl, a popular realist painter who also spent summers in the town. Other characters who appear in the story are invented too but the visiting Ihlen family including the three daughters, actually existed and play an important part in the plot.

In a lush sensuous novel, narrated by Johanna, the author sets up the contrast between the staid, deeply conventional townsfolk and the wild, bohemian and ‘wicked’ Munch and his friends. One of the Ihlen daughters has previously had an affair with Munch which the family imagines has been hushed up. However the locals are even further outraged when Johanna is spotted in Munch’s garden with another sister, Tulik. Whilst Tulik falls obsessively in love with Munch, Johanne absorbs the colours and emotions of the paintings and incorporates the ideas in her own work.

It doesn’t end well! Stromme has invented the characters of the real participants as well as the fictional ones, to create a moving sensual landscape of shifting light and colour, also using Munch’s actual paintings as key moments in the plot. It is a long audio book, over 11 hours, but I loved every minute of it.

Lisa Stromme is British but has spent the last 20 years in Norway.

Chris Shaw

'A Government Inspector by Nikolai Gogol'

Originally published in 1836, the play was revised for an 1842 edition. Based upon an anecdote allegedly recounted to Gogol by Pushkin, the play is a comedy of errors, satirising human greed, stupidity, and the extensive political corruption of Imperial Russia. It gave me in insight into the context of the Russian Revolution and explained a lot, so it was worth the struggle with Russian names and patronymics.

Margaret Stanger

'A Gentleman in Moscow  by Amor Towles'

This is a fun, clever, and surprisingly upbeat look at Russian history through the eyes of one man. At the beginning of the book, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov is sentenced to spend his life under house arrest in Moscow's Metropole Hotel. The ending is true to the character of Count Rostov who retained his love and connection with his native country through all the years of his house arrest in the Hotel Metropole. Notwithstanding his determination to stage manage Sofia's defection it is not surprising that he did not select a life abroad for himself. There were many nods to Russian writers, especially Tolstoy. A book about Russia rather than by a Russian author, it shows some of the post 1917 social history, and together with 'A Government Inspector', I can see where George Orwell is coming from with Animal Farm and 1984.

Margaret Stanger

‘The First Circle’ by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, this edition 1988 Collins Harvill.

(Translated by Hayward, Harari and Glenny)

‘The First Circle’ refer to Dante’s ‘Inferno’, where the First Circle of Hell is basically where the good and virtuous go, who cannot go straight to ‘The Good Place’ because they have not been exposed to Christian teaching. Through instruction and striving they may be released.

In Solzhenitsyn’s story he gives the label to a special kind of prison designed as a technical/scientific establishment. The kind of prisoners who end up here are sent because of their skills, knowledge or training, to work on state projects. For example a whole ragbag of men are working on a scrambler telephone ordered by Stalin. The prisoners are overseen by warders and security staff who are supposed to have similar skills but invariably don’t.

The Soviet system that developed under Stalin was probably the most brutally stupid and illogical regime ever devised. Marx’s materialist analysis of history as basically a class struggle, and his advocacy of revolution in which the workers took over the means of production was a Utopian dream. Nevertheless, by the time of the first Russian Revolution international socialism was well under way. However, under Lenin and the Bolsheviks, the dream became a nightmare and under Stalin, terrifying. Some historians have surmised that Stalin’s paranoia was due to his alcoholic father and broken family. It is said that the only person he ever trusted was Adolf Hitler. He was also upset and angered by the West’s failure to acknowledge the Russian people’s enormous effort and sacrifice in winning the war.

The result was that everyone was suspicious of everyone else, everyone was afraid of losing their job and even in The First Circle there was a network of spies and informers. Add to this the fact that deadlines become more and more unrealistic as only the prisoners themselves were prepared to admit the slow progress they are making with inferior materials and tools.

It is a warm, poignant and often amusing story, showing the humanity and comradeship of people even under oppression. There is a huge cast of characters and, although the main action of the novel takes place only over 3 days, we hear all the back stories of the prisoners and how they unfold in great detail, giving a powerful evocation of the Gulag and the system of terror that affects every man, woman and child in the Soviet Union. Solzhenitsyn shows us how each person strives to find his own salvation, clinging to life and hope in this monstrous edifice.

Chris Shaw 29.6.20

‘The First Circle’, by Alexandr Solzhenitsyn - Publication Research

I was intrigued to find that in my 1988 Collins Harvill edition of Solzhenitsyn’s novel the copyright resides, not with the author himself, but with the first English publishers Harper and Row in 1968. I subsequently discovered that Harper and Row’s translator, Thomas P Whitney, used the shorter self-censored manuscript smuggled out of Russia by Solzhenitsyn’s underground contacts. Another publication from around that time was by translated by Olga and Henry Carlisle, presumably from the same source. Collins, who acquired the Harvill Press in the 1950s was not happy with these translations and used Michael Guybon (a pseudonym of the trio Max Hayward, Manya Harari and Michael Glenny, incidentally the father of Micha Glenny, the BBC Russia correspondent!) to produce a 1969 edition. It is clear that my 1988 edition was also the shorter self-censored version, published again by Collins Harvill, using the same Hayward, Harari and Glenny translation. Now the plot thickens!

Some of this is from Wikipedia and Google but has been partially confirmed by Dawn Sinclair, an archivist at Harper Collins whom I contacted.

After the author’s death in 2008, an edition of the ‘In The First Circle’ published by Harper Perennial in 2009, is advertised as, ‘The first uncensored edition’ and contained the original 96 chapters as opposed to the previous 87. This time the translation was by Harry T Willetts, an Oxford Scholar, who died in 2005! Alexander Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Noble Prize for literature in 1970, but in 1974 he was formally exiled from the Soviet Union and went to live in America. Further versions of the 87 chapter version were published from 1971 and by Fontana press in 1974. The complete 96 chapter version (with some later revisions) was published in Russian by YMCA Press in 1978, and has been published in Russia as part of Solzhenitsyn's complete works. Excerpts from the full 96 chapter version were published in English by The New Yorker, and in The Solzhenitsyn Reader. An English translation of the full version was published by Harper Perennial in October 2009, entitled ‘In The First Circle’ rather than The First Circle.

However, I have still not found out why it took until after Solzhentisyn’s death to publish the full 96 chapter version in English. The story of the YMCA press and its relationship to Russian Literature, and with the author of The Gulag Archipelago in particular, is fascinating in itself and maybe the answer lies there.

Thanks to Wikipedia and Harper Collins publishers.

Chris Shaw 28.6.20

‘The Suitcase’ by Sergei Dovlatov, 1986

Dovlatov was not widely published or read in Russia until after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Unable to publish in the Soviet Union, Dovlatov circulated his writings through samizdat and by having them smuggled into Western Europe for publication in foreign journals; an activity that caused his expulsion from the Union of Soviet Journalists of the USSR in 1976.

The suitcase in question is the one he took with him when he left the Soviet Union with his mother to join his daughter in New York. He did not open it until 6 years later, its nostalgic contents provide vivid memories of incidents that he recounts in this autobiographical book of short stories.

I found it fairly lightweight after reading Solzhenitsyn but amusing nevertheless - indicative of the absurdities of life in Russia. Dovlatov died in 1990 aged only 49. I imagine that he would find today’s Russia equally absurd and scary!

Chris Shaw 29.6.20

'The Door' by Magda Szabo

'The Door' is about a writer, the narrator, who lives in a village in Hungary, with her husband. Now that their work is no longer banned, she is writing again and needs domestic help. She hires an older woman, Emerence, but feels as if she was the one being interviewed. Emerence cooks and cleans for people in the village, she minds children, she sweeps the snow off the street in winter. She knows everyone’s business. She holds court on the scrubbed porch outside her house. No one is allowed past her closed front door, although a smell of disinfectant leaks out over the lintel.
'The Door' revolves around the relationship of two women, one of whom is telling the story and may or may not be a reliable narrator, both control freaks. The writer sees Emerence as a hired help, to work regular hours and do as she is told. Emerence sees the writer as a child, to be guided and as the two women become more attached, their lives become intertwined and we are shown tantalising hints of Emerence’s history and what might be behind her front door.
It is a riveting read, and a book I will never forget. In a short introduction, the British novelist Ali Smith suggests that Emerence may indeed be Hungary itself. If so, the novel is also about how despite our own wishes to be free of history, our own agency is curtailed by our time and circumstances: in the novel, Emerence’s great calamity would have occurred, after all, whether the narrator was there to witness it or not.

Margaret Stanger, 17.6.2020

‘The Door’, by Magda Szabó, 1987. Trans. Len Rix 2005

‘The Door’ must, to some extent, parallel the life of the Author Magda Szabo in that it features a writer, married to a writer, whose work is censured during the Stalinist years, but who is eventually recognised, reinstated and awarded the highest national literary prize.

However, whilst all this is going on, the fictional author (also called Magda) is recounting her extraordinary relationship with her housekeeper. As the couple’s reputation improves and work increases they have to find a housekeeper and take on Emerance, a caretaker and neighbourhood housework expert.

As the novel opens, Magda has awakened screaming from a nightmare in which she is forced to realise that she has killed Emerance.

Her relationship with Emerance has itself something of a nightmarish quality. Emerance chooses her own hours, what she does and what she is paid. She is outspoken, uncompromising, holds strong opinions about everything but is, at the same time inscrutable and unpredictable. When Magda rescues a puppy abandoned in the snow it is Emerance who takes charge, trains him fiercely and names him Viola after a cat of hers who died. Although Emerance refuses to actually house him Viola eventually becomes her dog obeying her every command.

Despite all this and despite her fearsome reputation, Emerance is generally well thought of as she is kind and generous and works with the strength of 5 men for her friends and neighbours. Magda grows to love her housekeeper, even as she fears her. Emerance grows to love Magda and her husband, even as she despises their ‘so-called work’ (She thinks all intellectual pursuits, the Church and doctors are a waste of time).

This complex relationship develops during fierce rows, stand-offs, reconciliations and loving gestures to the point where Emerance begins revealing her secrets; clues to her character. This is a privilege but happens at the point where the couple’s work has increased and they are called away to conferences. Magda suffers from anxiety and depression as she realises how she is letting Emerance down.

Eventually, as Emerence feels her physical powers waning, she reveals that she has included Magda in her will. She takes Magda into her house - the only person ever who has been allowed inside. She reveals why her house is always kept locked and shuttered: 9 cats! Under the terms of the lease she is only allowed two. Magda is to receive her valuable collection of furniture and ceramics. In return she has to humanely dispose of the cats.

At this point there is still some time to go before the end but, when it comes, it is frightening and shocking. Magda’s guilt-ridden nightmare is explained.

This magnificent story has the hallmarks of a Greek tragedy: the conflict between needs and desires, fame and duty, love and hate. Emerance’s skill at revenge is masterful, her self-sacrifice noble and her opinions contradictory. In the end she is a spotlight on all our weaknesses and vanities. She makes us question our beliefs about what is important in life.

Chris Shaw 14.5.2020

Adventures in Literature - Archive- Adventures in Literature

Iza's Ballad by Magda Szabo

Alison White writes -

Magda Szabo was born in 1917 in Debrecen, Hungary. Began her literary career as a poet. In the 1950s she disappeared from the publishing scene for political reasons and made her living by teaching and translating from French and English. She began writing novels and in 1978 was awarded the Kossuth Prize, most prestigious literary award in Hungary. Her novel, The Door was an international sensation winning France’s Prix Femina Etranger and the Oxford-Wiedenfield Translation Prize and was made into s film starring Helen Mirren. She died in 2007. George Szirtes is a T.S. Eliot Prizewinning poet and has recently won the Best Translated Book Award in the USA.

When Ettie’s husband dies, her daughter Iza insists that she give up the family home and move to Budapest (she has only been there once on a one night’s honeymoon). Displaced from the community and her home Ettie tries to find a place in this new life.

Story of a woman who loses her husband/life’s companion (in whom she relies to a certain extent but is also a woman in her own right in the community and has kept the family together through thick k and thin)and a mother trying to get closer to her daughter whom she has never really known/understood. Daughter more like husband. Their son who died was more like mother. It is about the meeting of the old-fashioned and the modern worlds (– present day is 1960s) and the beliefs we construct over a lifetime.
Beautifully translated and the prose is wonderful. Book sectioned into (not sure why)- Earth, Fire, Water and Air
Earth: Vince dying
Fire: Moving to Budapest and staying in Dorozs, where Hospital/Spa was
Water: the headstone being created and story of Lidia who grew up where Vince had
Air: Story of Iza and Ettie’s death

This is the story of a family in Hungary a family full of sorrow in the way beautiful translation the pros is wonderful and the book is page turner The story centre is really around Ettie, the mother, who has possibly married beneath her she had an aunt Emma who was very refined and taught her refined things she married Vince who was a became a judge and he had come from lonely beginnings through benevolence and he supported this benevolence and in fact supported and Antal who became their son-in-law. Vince was sacked from his job after a poor judgement and had no money and so when Iza was born Ettie was 38 they had had a boy child before but he had died and they were very upset. Iza was a strange child and took at an early age upon herself to help the parents and everybody else and she became a doctor. 23 years after being struck off Vince received money in advance of the striking off and so they were financially much better but the old woman still practised economy Vince then got cancer Iza and and Antal's marriage had broken up they had lived at the family home all the time Iza then went to Budapest and after the funeral for Vince which Iza managed concisely the old woman went to live with Iza in Budapest here she lost her identity as she was not allowed to do anything Iza had a housekeeper who did all the shopping and cooking and Iza and the old woman used to ride round Budapest on trams she wasn't allowed to have to make any friends in the park and she just became a and nothing that she did not know what to do and then the headstone for husband was finished and the old woman decided to go home and she took all sorts of things a very heavy case which Iza thought was stupid and she arrived back in the town and she came to life. She was staying with a friend called Gica but her house was cold so Antal said to come and stay in the old house which he had done up and he was going to marry the nurse that had looked after Vince. The old woman was left alone by Antal while he went to get his fiancé. She decides to go out and wonders around to find Vincent she finds him in the woods which were now being built upon and she'd already seen that before going and then I think she just dies there but she has found herself again and is able to think for herself. However, it is night time and cold and she dies.

Antal and Iza’s marriage – he realised that she was consuming him and although he loved her, he needed space.

‘The Book of Laughter and Forgetting’ by Milan Kundera, 1979

As a student and young man Kundera was enthusiastic about communism when the government was first formed but quickly became disillusioned when he realised that the system was not open to criticism. He was expelled from the party for his outspoken views in 1950 and then readmitted a few years later when he was appointed as a lecturer in film studies at the university in Prague. He was expelled again in 1970 for his involvement in the ‘Prague Spring’ movement and his criticism of the Russian invasion. Finally, he moved to Paris with his wife in 1975, were he has largely remained.

This is his third novel. It is really a collection of short stories linked, it seems, by the author himself who, whilst writing about the characters in the third person, also comments on them in the first person. The love stories, erotic encounters and personal histories form a vehicle for the Kundera’s musings on history, politics and art. The unreliability of memory and the rewriting or eradication of history by those in power are linked in these stories to the personal tragedies of separation and loss, and the inevitability of forgetting.

Kundera points out that there are two types of laughter: the Angels’ laughter and the Demons’ laughter. Whilst the angels give us order and meaning the demons bring us criticism, scorn and chaos. These need to be in balance; if we have too much of either we cannot cope. Both types of laughter are pretty much the same noise. His point is that under a totalitarian regime we have lost the ability to distinguish between the two. The regime is terrifying but ridiculous. The not-very-secret secret agents are comical in their stupidity.

As a young man I enjoyed Kundera’s erotic imagery and surreal indignation. Re-reading him 40 years later, I can also appreciate the philosophical gems.

Chris Shaw, 11.5.2020

’The Mirror and the Light’ by Hilary Mantel

“It has been eleven years since Mantel introduced us to her Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall, and eight long years since Bring Up the Bodies followed: few books have been as highly anticipated as the trilogy's conclusion, and ’The Mirror and the Light’ is entirely worth the wait. To read Mantel's realisation of the Tudor court is not to read history, it is to live it: her present-tense narrative, pitch-perfect dialogue and stunning attention to detail all make for an entirely immersive experience as she brings to life the era's major players and their surroundings. This does not just set the standard for historical fiction, but for contemporary storytelling as a whole.” (Waterstones' review!)

Our “hero” is far from a totally sympathetic character, but he is still both attractive and sympathetic. He is a great survivor from a harsh childhood as the son of a vicious, bullying blacksmith father. His climb to power as Henry VIII‘s chief Minister and hatchet man is extraordinary and enthralling and exciting. He is a highly complex character: ruthless in expediting the divorce of Katherine of Aragon and the death of Anne Boleyn whilst protecting Princess Mary from the King’s wrath (at his own risk).

He shows great command of psychology (and fear) in questioning prisoners but my own sympathy was stretched to the limit when, whilst he himself feels under great threat, a possible catholic spy is captured. He cannot give time to his subtle methods of questioning and simply orders “rack him” and report what he tells.

Whilst the historical outcome is well known, the final build up of tension is extraordinary. I strongly recommend it to you all.

Jim Byrne 28.4.2020

’A Personal Matter’ by Kenzaburō Ōe, 1964, English 1969

A strange and disturbing novel, quite short and set over just a few days.

A young man whose wife has just given birth to a baby with an apparently horrific birth defect goes on a binge of drinking and sex with an ex-girlfriend before coming to terms with his responsibilities—not just the baby and his wife but also his ex girlfriend.

One of things I found most frightening was the ignorance and indifference of the obstetricians responsible for the birth and the way that they break the news from the father and hide it from the mother. Bird is not with his wife at the birth: he roams the city and phones his mother in law at intervals for news.

Eventually he speaks to a doctor who tells him, to come quickly, “your baby is abnormal”. After a frantic ride on a borrowed bicycle in the rain, he meets two doctors who tell him that the baby has a ‘brain hernia’, “It’s almost as if he has two heads". One of the doctors giggles and the other says, “would you like to see the goods?” He is assured that his wife is “alright” and has been told that there may be some problem with the heart.

Remember, this is the 1960s, in Japan which is still struggling to recover from the profound devastation of the second world war and a new political regime influenced by Western values.

Having been told that his baby is not expected to live Bird has, nevertheless, to accompany the baby in an ambulance to the General Hospital where he is to be cared for. Here, coping with inscrutable bureaucracy he is finally told that they are going to perform an operation when the baby is strong enough. Bird doesn’t want this, he cannot face the idea. He wants the baby to die rather than linger in what he is told will probably be a ‘vegetative state’.

Kenzaburō Ōe shocked the Japanese literary establishment who condemned his graphic depictions of horror and sex, It is powerful stuff. It also makes you realise how far medical practice has improved since then, not only in the scientific aspects but in the care and treatment of families,

It was an uncomfortable read but in the end redemptive. It was revealing to me how much Haruki Murakami, a younger author, has borrowed from Ōe, particularly his vivid descriptions and wild similes. In addition, his descriptions of what Bird is imagining the other characters are thinking: often unspeakable thoughts. I think this must have shocked the critics too.

‘A Personal Matter’ is written from Kenzaburō Ō