The Sound of Things Falling

A male hippopotamus escapes from a private zoo – it is shot with high-powered rifles and the marksmen pose with the body for photographs. The entrails are buried on the spot and the head and legs are sent to a research laboratory in Bogotá. This particular hippo was one of several who broke out of their enclosure — most of them were not hunted and are now feral in the surrounding area. The zoo was owned by one of the richest men in the world and was part of a heavily guarded private compound called Hacienda Nápoles (“Naples City in Italy”). As well as the zoo, the compound contained an artificial lake, numerous pieces of sculpture and life-sized models of dinosaurs and a mammoth. The compound was owned by Pablo Escobar, a drug lord, trafficker and terrorizing murderer – over the gate was a replica of the single-engined aircraft in which Escobar’s drugs were delivered to the USA. After Escobar was cornered and killed, and his cartel dismantled, his former fortress has been opened to the public

Things FallingAll of this is real, not fiction, but it provides the opening image of the novel The Sound of Things Falling, by Juan Gabriel Vásquez. Vásquez is a Colombian writer, born in Bogotá in 1973, but who moved to Europe after he graduated from university. He lived in France, Belgium and Spain, returning to Bogotá four years ago. Although Things Falling is his sixth novel, it is only the third to be translated into English (all of them by Anne McLean, who has won several awards for her work).

Vásquez pays tribute to his eminent predecessor, Gabriel García Márquez, but distances himself from magical realism, claiming that the genre requires the reader to reinvent history, or the truth. Things Falling is a realist novel, with a strong narrative voice. Even so, the style is leisurely, considered, evocative of landscape and feelings and character.

The story is about Antonio Dammara, a disaffected law professor living and working in Bogotá. He is seriously injured when he is struck by a stray bullet while in the company of an acquaintance from his youth called Ricardo Laverde. He has not seen Laverde in many years, who has aged badly and has become a withdrawn, enigmatic person. Laverde is killed in the drive-by shooting. After a long and painful recovery, which indirectly causes his marriage to start to fail, Antonio determines to find out the reason for the murder. This involves an exploration not only of Laverde’s past but of his own, growing up in Colombia while the country was held to violent ransom by the drug wars caused by Escobar and his cartel. His discoveries about Laverde’s life, the story of Elaine, Laverde’s American wife, and his only daughter, Maya, make up the substance of the book.

It is a highly unusual and ambitious novel, one of the best I have read recently.

The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vásquez. Bloomsbury, 299 pp, £16.99. ISBN 978-1-4088-2579-2

My Island is Darkening

I normally avoid politics, but this is beyond politics.

Referenda in the UK are only advisory. They are not legally binding. The British Parliament is sovereign. The referendum last week was advisory.

Although the public voted in favour of leaving, the UK is not obliged to withdraw from the EU unless Parliament decides to do so. In fact it cannot. Parliamentary decisions cannot be constrained by non-parliamentary opinion. (Cf. the abolition of hanging in 1965, when around 85% of the British public were believed at that time to be in favour of retention.) Parliament is sovereign.

Before the referendum it was known that only a minority of sitting MPs were on the Brexit side. Because of the Tories’ tiny majority David Cameron would have had to allow a free vote — after that the question of leaving the EU would not have arisen.

But Cameron caved in to his Euro sceptics and the abominable Ukip, and committed himself to the referendum. He has paid the price. In the words of Polly Toynbee’s brilliant essay in today’s Guardian, “his place in history is assured only as the man who shipwrecked Britain.”

The country now has fallen into the hands of opportunistic but weak and inexperienced Tory adventurers like Boris Johnson and Michael Gove. Nigel Farage, who runs Ukip, is a disgrace to our nation, a national embarrassment. The union with Scotland will certainly collapse. On the other side of the Irish Sea the Sinn Fein party of Northern Ireland want union with the rest of Ireland (which remains in the EU) – such a development runs a severe risk of renewed violence from the Protestants in the north. The British special relationship with the USA is faltering, even in the words of the mild and moderate President Obama. The EU is already urging Britain to speed up the divorce and get the hell out of the way.

Britain is becoming a pariah, a sort of offshore irrelevance, for now at least dominated by bigots and opportunists, armed with nuclear weapons.

I love Europe as it has become in the years after World War 2. I see it as a peaceful, tolerant, civilized, enlightened place, full of progressive technology, culture, ideas and art. It has pioneered Human Rights, the abolition of the death penalty, legislation on crucial environmental issues, the free movement of citizens, a gradual growth into secularism after centuries of dominance by churches.

The hated EU bureaucracy that these Tory adventurers have focused on is the same bureaucracy employed by every large state, the old UK included. Nowhere is perfect. Until this week, the inexplicable little marriage of convenience between mainland Europe and my island home was something that worked against all the odds, a bickering, annoying relationship between two sides who knew each other rather too well. The result was a paradoxical but stable and fruitful partnership, perhaps a model for all civilized nations to aspire to.

They could stop all this now. Parliament is sovereign — it cannot be said too often. If the MPs had the guts to defy the “advice” of the public, if Parliament trusted in its own beliefs, it could quash the referendum now, immediately, today, tomorrow, next week, before any more damage is done.

Of course it will not, and so we drift into a future that suddenly seems deeply unpleasant and dangerous.

Cover Designs for The Gradual

Gradual GollanczSame book, same publication date (September 2016), two different approaches. The one at top is Gollancz’s UK edition; the other is Titan’s edition for the USA. I have been waiting a long time for the Gollancz cover to be finalized, partly my fault because at first I said I liked the original draft, then changed my mind. I was away travelling for much of May, and assumed things would happen while I was away. At last, mid-June, I think these two are now the ones.

The choice of cover illustrations is often a vexing one for the writer — at least I find it so. I am not bereft Gradual Titanof visual imagination, but whenever I try to reconceive something I have written in visual terms I find myself irresistibly drawn to the mental images I formed when actually writing. As these are usually imprecise as to detail (they are a kind of imagined soupy mix of ideas and characters) they are not much help.

This is of course why publishers have art departments, who supposedly regard the work with fresh eyes, and commission images from that position.

I have always rather liked the traditional paper-wrapped books they use to publish in France: a kind of grey or beige or off-white, with just the title and the author’s name. Whenever I tentatively raise this idea, the publishers clearly think I’m a bit mad.

Jerzy Kosinski — tainted

Kosinski 3I have been reading this biography* of the Polish-American writer Jerzy Kosinski, a figure of deep ambiguity, a man of endless contradictions and apparent deceptiveness. He was a liar, a plagiarist, a shameless social climber, a hater and abuser of small dogs, a manipulator of women, a constant user of whores, an annoying player of unfunny and sometimes dangerous practical jokes. All of this was routinely denied by Kosinski, while most of his strange and dysfunctional acts were known and witnessed by many others. I knew none of it myself at the time, while not seriously doubting it when I became aware of what had been said. Rumours and accusations followed his career (intensifying after his death by suicide, a quarter of a century ago), with many people coming forward to claim that they had actually written his books for him. Some successful writers attract hostility and jealousy – Kosinski suffered these in spades. Everything is described in detail in the biography. Whatever the truth, for me Jerzy Kosinski was a novelist I found inspiring and influential.

Kosinski 2I first came across his work in 1968, when his second novel, Steps, was published in the UK. I had never read another book like it: almost every page was a shock, a revelation. This was partly because of the period – Steps seemed to fit naturally into the social upheavals of the time – but also partly because I was a young and beginning writer, trying to write and sell my own first novel. I was seeking a voice, seeking encouragement, seeking almost everything. I was dissatisfied with the conventional narratives of the novel, knew that there were ways to try to break out into more adventurous methods, but I was also stricken with a kind of stage fright, a nervousness about my own limitations.

Incautiously reading Steps was for me like suddenly throwing open a door without knowing what might be on the other side of the steep wall that contained it – there was what seemed to be a burst of light, revelations, openings, possibilities, a view of scenery I had not suspected was there, or ever could be. Steps consists of many short narratives, told in an icily clear, unemphatic voice. It is all description, with hardly any dialogue. It is written in a detached narrative voice, first person, unemotional, worryingly dispassionate – but the steps in Steps are violent, abusive, sometimes disgusting, dangerous, always unexpected.

I have not re-read Steps since that first time, but its images still haunt me. I soon found Kosinski’s only other book available then: it was in fact his first novel, The Painted Bird, published a couple of years before Steps. The Painted Bird is a more linear narrative, but also Kosinski 4consists of a series of shocking scenes or events. As the Germans invade Poland in 1939, the middle-class parents of a young Jewish boy place him for safety with peasants in a remote part of the countryside. This arrangement quickly breaks down, and the boy endures the rest of the war alone and sleeping rough, fending for himself in a strange and hostile landscape. He witnesses, or endures, appalling events as the Holocaust goes on around him – what you read in Steps is mild when compared with The Painted Bird. Some of the material is so horrifying that it is almost literally impossible to read. Again, Kosinski’s narrative voice was hypnotically calm, but because of what I knew about the author’s personal background (from the brief author descriptions on the book jackets) I assumed it was an autobiographical novel. If so it was unlike anything of that sort I had ever read.

Most people made the same assumption. By the time his novels were published, Kosinski had social-climbed his way into the upper echelons of the New York literary establishment. A regular at dinner parties, he repeatedly told his horrifying anecdotes: parental abandonment, trying to pass as a non-Jew, the violence of ignorant peasants, mutilation by criminals and SS members, being struck dumb. When he worked these stories into a book the publisher, who had heard them from Kosinski’s lips, accepted it as a non-fiction work. Kosinski insisted it was fiction, and as such it was published. When people read The Painted Bird, thinking as I did that it was a novel heavily influenced by personal experience, Kosinski would say in public that “it was all true”.

Who really wrote his books is a question that I think will never be answered. There have been various allegations of plagiarism or cheating. Perhaps the most damaging of these was that one of his most successful novels, Being There (1971), appears to have been a rewrite of a minor best-selling novel, published in Poland in 1932. The plagiarism would be obvious to many readers in Poland, but the original novel was never translated into English. One George Reavey, an unsuccessful poet, came forward and claimed that it was he who had written The Painted Bird. Others said that Kosinski had worked in some mysterious (and undescribed) way with the CIA – his escape from communist Poland and entry into the USA was suspiciously easy and his political background was always undefined, but the thought of CIA spooks collaborating with him on a novel about the Holocaust is too ridiculous to be taken seriously. His first two books (non-fiction, about the Soviet Union, published with the by-line Joseph Novak) were dictated in Polish to a bilingual secretary. She then fleshed them out into readable English. It is no secret that Kosinski employed a private editor to work as rewriter and adviser on many of the novels, or that Kosinski produced many different versions of his manuscripts, bearing multiple changes with each appearance.

I knew none of this when I read Kosinski’s first two novels, nor, for that matter, when I caught up with his later books. The books existed, they worked as books. Of course, as an author I believe the name of a writer on a book is a sort of guarantee, a brand, a vouchsafing of true identity. But many books are published under pseudonyms, many books are heavily edited by third parties before publication. Were his actions just a matter of degree?

Knowing what we know about Jerzy Kosinski, or strongly suspect, adds something to the intrigue, not something that is particularly flattering, but it made him different, odd, disturbing. Anyway, the novels were for me a terrific stimulus. I often went to read sections of them when I was stuck on one of my own books, not to copy or imitate the style, but partly to try to renew that first revelatory discovery of Kosinski’s unique way of showing the art of the possible.

Kosinski 1Reading James Park Sloan’s biography I frequently felt glad that I had never been part of Kosinski’s circle, that I had never met him. But then, suddenly, I remembered that I had met him once, very briefly. In 1983 he came to London to deliver the annual Scott Dawson Memorial Lecture to members of P.E.N. (of which Kosinski was a past president). It was held at the Royal Festival Hall, and the place was packed. In the interval I saw Jerzy Kosinski in the foyer, so I boldly approached him and asked him to autograph my copy of Steps. He looked at it, checked the print information, then said, ‘Have you any idea how rare and valuable this edition is?’

I said I did, and watched as he used a felt-tip pen to double its rarity and value.

* Jerzy Kosinski: A Biography, by James Park Sloan. Dutton, 1996, ISBN 0-525-93784-6

Not yet The Gradual

I had been hoping to put up an early image of the covers (UK and USA) of my next novel, The Gradual. The Titan cover for the USA has been agreed, but Gollancz and I are still discussing what should go on the British cover. I should like to place the two images side by side, as they are of equal importance to me. Maybe in the near future? I have now seen and corrected the proofs for the UK edition – publication set for September 15.

Earlier this month we took a short holiday in the highlands of Scotland. It is almost impossible to convey the sense of beauty, awe and peacefulness you gain from seeing so much open scenery, so here are a few photos of what we so briefly visited. We returned refreshed, but with an unmistakable feeling that the Devon countryside, which normally we relish, now seemed a bit, well, flat …

None of these pictures would make a suitable cover for the novel, by the way.

 

Loch Lomond in the evening. It was raining.
Loch Lomond in the evening. It was raining.
The memorial to Bonnie Prince Charlie on Loch Shiel. It had just finished raining.
The memorial to Bonnie Prince Charlie on Loch Shiel. It had just finished raining.
The seafront at  Nairn.
The seafront at Nairn.
Glamis Castle. The secret, sealed-up room should be visible on the left wall, but is not.
Glamis Castle. The secret, sealed-up room should be visible on the left wall, but is not.
From Rannoch Moor.
From Rannoch Moor.

Where am I?

Just to record, slightly amused, slightly egocentric, that earlier this week I (or more correctly my book The Prestige) was a question on BBC-TV’s University Challenge. As things turned out, I was also an answer. It’s a weird experience, when this happens. This was incidentally a step forward, because two or three years ago I was a question on the same programme, but, as things turned out, not an answer.

I am giving a talk this evening (11th March 2016) to the Birmingham SF Group, at the Briar Rose Hotel, Bennett’s Hill, Birmingham, from 7:30pm. I should have mentioned this before — sorry about the short notice. More details here.

While on this subject I will also be appearing at the North London Literary Festival on 22nd March 2016, at Middlesex University in London. Full information here.

We will also be at Mancunicon, the Easter SF convention, from 25th to 27th March 2016, at the Hilton Deansgate Hotel, 303 Deansgate, Manchester M3 4LQ. If you are not already a member of the convention, day memberships are available, but (NB) only if purchased in advance. There will be no day admissions at the door. If you are intending to be there, make contact with them now. Full details of day memberships, and everything else, here. I shall be appearing on two panel discussions, one on Saturday evening, one on Sunday evening.

April looks as if it will be a quiet month, so I will be getting down to work, but during May I am involved in a hectic excursion, which includes two visits to France and a week in Canada. Later in the year: more of the same, even more hectic. I thought things were supposed to slow down as you enter the crepuscular years of your life …

Soggy

Storm Imogen blew the vanes off our local wind turbine. It left the rest of the place a bit wet underfoot. All these pictures were taken within 500 metres of our house.

Soggy Devon 3

Soggy Devon 4

From my office window 25 02 16

Soggy Devon 1

Soggy Devon 2

The Space Machine

The Space Machine ValancourtHere is the cover by Valancourt Books for their US paperback reissue of The Space Machine, which was first published by Faber & Faber some 40 years ago. (Yes, that’s FORTY. It’s not the sort of sentence I’m keen on writing. Read it quickly, please.) Valancourt’s edition is going on sale next month, March 2016.

Unlike a child that might have been born in 1976, The Space Machine is 40 years old only by date: it is not an adult, certainly not a middle-aged adult, but a child of its time. My time, in fact: it was my fourth novel, which I started writing more or less straight away after completing Inverted World. It is to my eyes still fresh to read, although I know that if I were to try to write something like it now I would probably muck it up. Lacking self-consciousness can be an advantage.

By the way, this year marks the 150th anniversary of H. G. Wells’s birth. His life and mine overlapped by just over three years, so I inappropriately think of him as a contemporary. I realize now, with hindsight, that my writing of this novel might seem like a bumptious act. At the time, part of what impelled me was the realization that I was then more or less the same age as Wells had been when he was writing his scientific romances — I still consider those to be his best work in fiction.

A Dish Best Served Cold?

This is a recommendation to the Argentinian film Wild Tales (Relatos Salvajes), which we watched on DVD last weekend. It came out last year and has won prizes and awards at film festivals all over the world, although largely in South and Central America. It gained nominations for the Oscar and BAFTA awards (in the categories embarrassingly and chauvinistically called respectively “Foreign Language” and “Not in English”). It was also nominated for the Palme d’Or at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival.

Somehow, though, perhaps because it was thought to be “foreign”, it did not gain a theatrical release in the UK, and opened on a paltry four screens in the USA. Traditionally, English-speaking audiences are assumed by distributors to loathe sub-titled films. (It is exactly this kind of unthinking chauvinism that is ultimately behind the current controversy about actors in this year’s Academy Awards.) Whatever the reason, Wild Tales can be fairly said to have slipped through the Anglophone net. More fool us.

Wild TalesIt is a wonderful film, one of the best made and most enjoyable I have seen in a long time. It is, though, difficult to describe and review, because of the form it takes. It is a portmanteau film, consisting of six individual short stories, without linking between them. In Wild Tales the stories have nothing in common beyond the theme: they are all about revenge.

The wish for revenge is an intriguing subject, and here it is treated with flourish. Each of the stories is original and unusual, each is well told and skilfully filmed. The cast consists of actors who are not instantly familiar to British and American audiences, but are obviously well known in Argentina – perhaps the most familiar of the actors is Ricardo Darin, who was the lead in such (Argentinian) films as Nine Queens and The Secret in Their Eyes. But the ensemble acting is terrific throughout.

Each of the episodes is imaginatively constructed: there is an ingenious plot as well as the story, and the characters are properly and convincingly drawn. There are memorable images galore: you will never forget the astonishing image with which the first story ends, but it’s not a film of cinematic trickery. The concluding story, for example, is based entirely on character and good writing, and leads up to a most satisfactory and surprising ending.

Wild Tales was produced by Pedro Almodóvar, and was written and directed by Damián Szifrón. I hope Szifrón has a long and successful career ahead of him. I can hardly wait to watch his film again, and I suspect others will enjoy it as much.

However:

During the same weekend we saw a second film. This, oddly enough, had several features in common with Wild Tales. Much of it was filmed in Argentina, for instance. A lot of the dialogue has subtitles in English. It too is about revenge.

It was (perhaps not obviously from that brief summary) the recent blockbuster vehicle for Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy: The Revenant.

Whereas Wild Tales glories in superlative writing and storytelling, The Revenant is minimally scripted, has hardly any story at all and no plot to speak of. It is no more than an anecdote, padded out for two and a half hours. You will know the anecdote before you go into the cinema: DiCaprio is savaged by a bear, left for dead by his colleague Tom Hardy, and after he recovers he goes off in search of Hardy to exact revenge. There is nothing more to the film than that: apart from a lot of hanging around in cold weather, fabulous photography of cold weather, a dip in a freezing river, endless violence in cold weather, a lot of cruelty in the snow … and a quest for revenge.

Wild Tales was budgeted at $3 millions. The Revenant spent $135 millions. Wild Tales, as I said, opened on a mere handful of American screens. The Revenant opened on more than three thousand.

Wild Tales is the better film.