Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Sunday, 30 January 2011

It's finished


I’m finished. Nearly finished, if I can misquote Beckett, but I imagine he’s used to that. Anyway I’m finished. I finished my fifth novel, Left, at six minutes past three on 20th January 2011. The oldest copy of the text I can find on my machine is dated 19th August 2006. That was the second version of the book and the one that formed the basis of the text I’ve just finished. There was, however, another original version before that – about 10,000 words – which I completely abandoned. It’ll be kicking around somewhere. Suffice to say it’s taken me five years to finish this novel. That’s a while.

I started writing my first novel in about August 1993. Eighteen years, five novels, just over three years a novel, but if you deduct the two years in the middle of the third novel and the three years in the middle of the fifth then that’s thirteen years so that’s not too bad. When I first got the idea to write Left I was expecting it would take me three years and had I not fallen ill that would have been a realistic figure. And if I ever write another book (although at the moment nothing could be further from my mind) that’s the amount of time I would be looking at. It’s like a prison sentence isn’t it?

Of course being in prison changes you. I’m not talking about a weekend’s lie over for being drunk and disorderly. I’m talking about a proper sentence like three years and even then I’m talking about three years after time off for good behaviour. On the surface imprisonment isn’t such a bad punishment. It beats being stoned to death hands down. Although I suppose much depends on who you’re dubbed up with. After spending three years with the cellmate-from-hell you might wish you’d been stoned or hung or something. And it changes you. It can change you.

Because that’s where I’ve been for the past five years, locked up inside my own head with little chance of parole. If I’m making novel writing sound unpleasant then good, because it is in many ways. Then why do it? It’s not a matter of choice. I never set out to write that first novel. I got an idea, or rather it got a grip of me, and once I’d managed to shake it off I’d written two books actually. And with surprising ease. So when it came to attempting a third I hoped it might be another piece of cake. Only it wasn’t. But once you’ve let an idea in it’s not so easy to dismiss it, especially if it’s a good idea.

If people ask me what I am these days I tell them I’m a writer. Really in my heart of hearts I’m a poet who happens to do other stuff and none of the other stuff matters as much as the poetry. If I never wrote another book I could die happy but if I never wrote another poem between now and then it would be a miserable life getting there and as far as I’m concerned you can just shoot me now. I still find calling myself a novelist difficult, uncomfortable, a bad fit.

I read blogs all the time listening to other writers talking about how they write. One of the words they use has always puzzled me: ‘draft’. It’s a word I steer clear of normally because I don’t write drafts, at least I don’t think of them as drafts. I start a book, I write until I get to the end and I try to get to the end as quickly as possible. I think of it as the ‘thin version’ of the novel, its skeleton. While I’m doing that I start ‘grafting in’ bits, fleshing out the text. Usually I do this by writing things that interest me and then seeing where they might fit into the book. Sometimes it’s only a sentence or a short paragraph. After a few of these are inserted I’ll go back and begin reading from the start and ‘smooth out’ the wrinkles as I come across them. This often means nothing more than tidying up sentence structure but it also involves expanding bits that are unclear. And I continue until I reach the end of the text and I’ll write a bit more. Then we go back to the grafting in and smoothing out and we keep doing that until the book flows like one long sentence from beginning to end. At least that’s the plan.

I remember being at a book event where Jeanette Winterson was reading and answering questions and I asked her about her process. It’s very different to mine. She starts out with a huge amount of material and chips away at it until she reveals the book within. So we’re talking sculpture. I also sculpt but I relate more to clay rather than stone. I slap on bits and shape them, cut other bits out, move them around, take them back off if I don’t like the look of them. At the heart is a wire frame, the ‘skeleton’ of the piece. This last book has been a bit different to the others in that I completely scrapped my first attempt at it. All I retained was the concept. Later, after about 23,000 words, I completely rewrote the piece changing the tense from third person to first. For me these are major changes. I still shy away from the word ‘draft’ because I’ve always felt I was working on the finished product, just not the complete finished product, if that makes sense.

The file I saved on 20th January is named Left v5.58.doc. On the 7th of May 2010 I saved Left v5.01.doc. So between those two dates I saved 58 different files on two different computers plus a copy online. The version number is not a draft. It simply indicates that a substantial amount of time separates the last v4 file, about a year. It was in May that I felt well enough to do some serious work on the book again and over that time period I’ve written about 20,000 words bringing the total length to about 53,000 which is about par for the course for me. Only one novel is longer, the mammoth (for me) The More Things Change which clocks in at 90,000 words – I still can’t believe I managed to write that many.

So where did the idea come from for the book?

the body artistIn The More Things Change I wrote this line – “Writers don’t have real lives, they have ongoing research.” Basically what I mean by that is that everything is fodder. I might not use an idea today or tomorrow but they all get chucked into the mix and tried out every now and then. It’s like colour matching only with ideas. But the core idea for the book occurred to me after I read The Body Artist by Don DeLillo:

The body artist of the title is Lauren Hartke, who does conceptual performance art pieces in which she systematically transforms her body on stage in various ways. She's suddenly lost her husband, a self-invented Spanish film director named Rey Robles. In a short, lovely opening set piece, DeLillo presents us with a moment-by-moment account of their final morning together: She can't stop sniffing the box of soy granules, trying to figure out what they smell like, as he half-answers her questions and they share the newspaper and turn the radio on and off.

We soon learn of Rey's death by reading his obituary, and the rest of the novel scrutinizes Lauren's inner world during the first few months of her grief. She discovers that a mysterious, childlike, half-insane homeless man has been living in the ramshackle seaside house the couple has been renting, and he freaks her out by repeating snatches of her conversations with Rey over the past months. As she holes up in the house, avoiding answering the phone and trying to figure out how to relate to the strange little man, it's almost, but of course not really, as if Rey is still there with her. – Maria Russo, The Body Artist by Don DeLillo’, The Salon, 21st February 2001

This book captivated me. I’ve read it three times now. The publisher included part of a quote on the cover from The Observer, which reads: 'A novel that is both slight and profound, a distilled meditation on perception and loss, and a poised, individual ghost story for the twenty-first century.'

What struck me about the situation Lauren finds herself in is that she has been afforded an extension, access to a part of her husband after his death. When people die one of the things so many of us say is that we wished we had had more time or that we wished our last conversation had gone better. What the homeless man, whom she calls Mr Tuttle, provides is an opportunity but she’s not exactly sure what this is an opportunity for.

I’ve not written much about the death of my parents, a handful of poems and that’s it. I have wondered about my concept of grief for a long time. I remember a funeral I went to once, and watching the people there, members of the same congregation, some of whom were in quite a state and this puzzled me. I was well aware of 1st Thessalonians 4:13 which says, “Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep [in death], or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope,” and I couldn’t understand why these people who must also have known this scripture (it may well have been quoted during the service even) were acting so. Death was not the end, only an end. Anyway I’ve always felt a little guilty for not grieving “like the rest of men” since I no longer have the “hope” the scripture talks of, the hope that I will see my parents again. I decided it was time I explored the nature of loss and indeed my initial concept was intended to be a fairly serious bit of philosophy masquerading as a novel.

imagesI started off with a female protagonist. From the very start this felt right. I think I wanted to make her female to distance myself from her but also, perhaps, because I have a daughter and I have to wonder how she might react to my death. So I had a thirty-year-old daughter and a fifty-year-old father. Have any of you ever seen a show called Raines? It was a short-lived TV series starring Jeff Goldblum:

Los Angeles. Present day. Michael Raines, an eccentric but brilliant cop, solves murders in a very unusual way – he turns the victims into his partners. These visions are figments of Raines' imagination, and he knows it, but when he can't make the dead disappear, he works with them to find the killer. Through his discussions, along with the evidence, Raines' image of the victim changes until he has a clear picture of what really happened. Only when the case is closed do the visions end. Other detectives question Raines' sanity, and occasionally so does he. However, as long as his unique methods are helping catch criminals, Raines imagines he'll be just fine. – plot summary, IMDB

This show went out in 2007 and so I saw it after I’d already abandoned my first attempt at the book but the concept is the same, the daughter in my book returned home to clear out her father’s flat and while she is doing so she has an ongoing conversation not with his ghost but with an imaginary dad who, of course, cannot tell her any more that what she already knows which is the problem Raines encounters and I’m rather sorry that the show was cancelled but don’t get me started on all the great shows that bite the dust.

The problem I found was that because I had made the daughter the same age as my own daughter I started writing her as if she was my daughter and I was the dead dad and this began to take me into areas I didn’t want to go. I’m perfectly happy to discuss my relationship with my daughter with her, both its strengths and its weaknesses, but I wasn’t keen to make it the basis for a novel. So I decided to start afresh and base both characters, the father and the daughter, on me, the me-I-am-just-now and the me-I-might-have-become by the time I drop dead on a No.9 bus when I’m seventy. Of course there are things that my daughter will be able to relate to – we don’t see each other nearly as much as we used to do ever since she started doing her Open University degree (not because she’s moved to Liverpool) – and I did retain that from the first draft not because it’s a big issue for me but because I needed a daughter who did not know her father well and having her in another country helped.

Since I decided to abandon the father-in-her-head trope I had to figure out to whom to give the voice. The solution was to create a third character, someone who knew the father but not the daughter, someone the daughter did not even know existed until after her father’s death. The idea from this came from a film I saw years ago about a woman who discovers her husband had been having an affair and after his death she and the other woman comfort each other since they are all that is left of three_colors_bluethe man they both loved. The two actually become lovers. I can’t find the name of the film – it’s probably quite an old one, maybe even a TV movie – but we have a similar situation in Krzysztof Kieslowski's Three Colours: Blue where a widow develops a friendship with a woman who is pregnant with her husband’s child. The important thing was to explore how we extract comfort from whatever sources are available.

Neither of my parents could be called a materialist; in fact when my mother died (my father passed away first) she had already pretty much emptied the house of everything bar the essentials for living handing most of the stuff into charity shops to which she was addicted. I was struck by how little of them was left in the house. All that was left was us three kids and what we don’t know now we’ll never know. And since my siblings and I are estranged what they know that I don’t is now lost to me. I should have asked my questions the last time I saw them because it seems unlikely now I’ll have another chance.

The first half of the book focuses on the daughter arriving to clear out her dad’s house. The story is told in the past tense by her and she addresses this to a third party in fact the whole book is a letter addressed to that party but I don’t reveal who this is until halfway through the book. This idea came late in the day and I have to thank Antonio Tabucchi for giving me this idea. In his novel Pereira Maintains the whole book is read by someone on behalf of Pereira; it’s not a letter but it is a written statement.

The final key to the puzzle I owe to Ruth Dugdall. Her novel The Woman Before Me is effectively a mystery but the difference is not working out who is guilty but whether the guilty party is remorseful and deserving of parole when she maintains that she is innocent of the crime for which she has been convicted; the whole notion of what a mystery is gets turned on its head and it was reading that book that made me realise that what I had been writing was a mystery novel, albeit a most unconventional one. Having that in place, all that remained was to fill in the blanks.

There is one other book to which I owe thanks: Arrival and Departure by Arthur Koestler. His book is in five parts:


The Present

The Past

The Future


and I initially intended the book opening with the daughter arriving at Glasgow Airport and imagined ending with her there too after her encounter with whatever exactly she was going to encounter. I even took Koestler’s open line, “Here we go,” and made it my opening line. Only I added “again” to it. I intended to do the same with the Departure section of the book. That all got dropped but the basic concept was retained: a woman arrives, faces certain truths, is affected by them and leaves a new woman. So rather than the book being about the father the focus became more and more about the daughter.

I had a discussion online recently about the need for change in novels. It was suggested to me that it’s an essential but I’m not entirely convinced. A catalyst causes a chemical reaction but it itself is unchanged. In my novel The More Things Change the whole point is the fact that things change but the protagonist doesn’t, not fundamentally; he undergoes experiences but who is in his life and where he is in it do not change. I think much the same is true for the protagonist in this new novel. She becomes more aware of herself and is provided with opportunities to . . . revel is as good a word as any . . . to revel in herself but I don’t think she changes. We’ll have to see what Carrie thinks when she’s finished it.

There is a point in every book, at least every book I have written so far, where I can’t for the life of me figure out how I’m going to finish it. This even goes for the first two because even through I had the basic stories written in a matter of a few short weeks they weren’t really novels for a long time after that and I wondered more than once whether I was kidding myself thinking I could make them into more than just a couple of funny stories. The third book was really my ‘difficult second album’ and it was. The thing I’ve learned is that, for me, the gestation process cannot be rushed. This has meant that everything I’ve written has morphed as it’s been written and has taken on a life of its own. Left is not the book I set out to write. I can tell you that here and now. The real question that needs answering is: Is the book I ended up writing worth the effort? That’s a hard one because, and I’ve said this about my poetry, the novel is what gets discarded at the end of the process. The writing of the novel is what was important to me and that was what it was. No one else will experience my novel that way and there is more of the book in my head than ever ended up on the page.

So is it really finished? No. Carrie will read it, give me her impression, answer my questions and add some of her own, and that will either mean a bit of editing or some clarification. Or curling up in a ball and sobbing. Just now I’m wondering if I specifically mentioned my protagonist putting the phone back on the hook. She leaves the phone off the hook so as not to be disturbed at one point but does she even put the receiver back in its cradle? Is that an issue? There’s a lot I don’t mention. So why is that bothering me? Don’t know. At the very least there will be a lot of proofreading to be done but that requires other skills and will probably not even be attempted for a few months until I can approach the book from a distance. And maybe then I’ll be looking for a volunteer to read the thing but don’t all rush at once. That’ll be a while yet.

But for now I’m finished, done in, knackered and with a ton of reading to catch up on.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Aggie and Shuggie 30



Och, ere e comes, tha wounded soja.


Mornin, Oggie. A pint o heavy when ye’ve a minute.


Fer yoo – no poablemo. Hoo’re tha goolies?


Still oan tha tender side Ah huff tae say.


So yoo’ll no be wantin anither shoat oan tha Karaoke then?


No tha noo. Ah mist owe yer sumhim fer tha speakers.


At’s paid.




Aye. Paid in fu. Aggie came doon an paid me fer tha damages a couple o days aefter ye went intae hoaspital.


She neffer said. Ah wummer whur she goat tha readies?


Well far be it frae me tae cause ructions but huff ye seen yer first edition af The Catcher in the Rye recently?


She cudnae?


Aye she cud.


She widnae?


Aye she wid.


She didnae?


Aye she did. Goat aboot seven hunner quid doon tha toon furrit.


Seven hunner? They was worth ower a grand. Twelve hunner at least.


Ah well, Shuggie. Whit cun Ah say? Hows aboot a wee whisky oan tha hoose?


Ah may as well.


There ye go, son. Get tha doon ye. So whit’s life like noo yer back hame?


Froasty tae say tha least. Wid freeze the bas aff a pawnbroker’s sign.




Aye. She hus goat me oan a very short leash.


A choaker?


Ah’d luv tae.


No, Ah wis talkin aboot tha collar. A choaker?


Aye, sumhin like tha.


So how come ye managed tae sneak oot ere?


We’ll oor Jim’s poemtry book goat a nice refyoo oan tha Ink, Sweat an Tears site an Ah took advantage o tha general guid mood in tha hoose an thought Ah’d chance ma arm an poap oot fer a wee bevvy.


Are they still oan the go? Ah do like a bit o jazz-fusion.


No tha band ye pillock. INK, Sweat an Tears!


Awwww. Ah though they wis a trbute band ur sumhin. So wis it a guid refyoo?


Pretty gid, aye.


Ye should get yoor Jim tae come doon an read a few af is poems tae the punters. We like a wee bit o Kultcha-wi-a-capital-k effry noo an then.


Ah’ll ask im but e’s a wee bit oan tha shy side.


Tell im there’s twenny quid in it an aw tha dry salted peanuts e can eat.


Sounds like a fair deal tae me.


That ye aff then?


Aye, dinnae want tae push it.


Ye shud take tha missus in a wee sumhin tae warm the cockles af her heart. How aboot a wee Babysham.


Tha’s no a bad idea but tell ye whit, sling us ower a couple o Carlsberg Specials insteed.


Two leg openers comin right up. Best o luck, Shuggie.


Hanks, Oggie. Ah’ll need it.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

In Other Rooms, Other Wonders


Pakistan is not just on the brink of the precipice, it’s probably fallen off the precipice, and is accelerating on its way down. — Daniyal Mueenuddin, in interview

After reading the eight interlinked stories that make up this collection I’ve come to a conclusion: rich or poor I’m glad I don’t live in Pakistan. If there is a single theme throughout this book it’s class. The poor are trying to better themselves by whatever means are at their disposal, fair or foul. and the rich are trying to hang onto what’s theirs and what they believe to be theirs. You need to be shrewd to get on in Pakistan because there's always somebody after a slice of what you have to keep them going until they can find a way to get their hands on the whole pie. Those somebodies might be members of your family or your employees or those in government. And your good fortune can turn on a dime (or an anna would probably be the closest Pakistani equivalent). All it takes is a death in the family and you can find yourself out on the street with a flea in your ear.

The feudal archetype in Pakistan consists of landlords with large joint families possessing hundreds or even thousands of acres of land although things are changing. These short stories revolve primarily around the Harouni family, their employees and their employees’ families. The only non-feudal characters are the ones in ‘Our Lady of Paris’ and ‘A Spoiled Man’- these stories revolve around industrialists. We get a good cross-section from the richest and most influential to the poorest. And we see what happens when someone tries to move beyond their class. I say ‘class’ and not ‘caste’ because Mueenuddin doesn’t mention caste. He doesn’t actually mention class. You simply understand from the subtext that certain things are not done in proper society.

A good example can be found in the title story, which focuses on the head of the family, K K Harouni based loosely on the author’s own father:

He was from a generation of elderly, dignified but harmless gentlemen. By birth with a lot of power, but not particularly significant. Good breeding, good manners. Representative of the fading Lahori land-owning class. — Beyond the Margins

We see him take a lover from among his servants, a girl called Husna that his estranged wife sends to him seeking a favour. Harouni is attracted to her because she reminds him of the servant girls with whom he had his earliest sexual experiences. When the old man dies — a spoiler, yes, but no surprise — his daughters make it clear that this pretender has no claim to the throne; the old man has not made provision for her in his will. The eldest, Kamila, tells her:

‘My father allowed you to live in this house. However, he would not have wanted you to stay in here. Tomorrow afternoon the car will be available to take you wherever you wish to be taken. I suppose you’ll go to your father’s house.’ She settled back, finished with the problem.

Husna, who had taken a seat halfway through this monologue, though she had not been invited to do so, looked down at the floor. Tears welled up in her eyes.

‘Did Uncle say anything about me before . . . before . . . ?’

Sarwat [one of the other sisters] broke in. ‘No,’ she replied with finality. ‘There was and is nothing for you.’

‘That isn’t what I meant,’ said Husna.

Kamila softened. ‘Look, whatever you had with my father is gone now. If you took care of him in these past months you were rewarded. You’re young, you’ll find other things. You think that you’ll never heal, but you will, sooner than you think.’

Now Husna stood. She had reached the bottom, and her pride arose, her sense of wanting to be dignified, to accept the inevitable.

Just as she approached the door, Rehana [the third sister] called to her. ‘There’s one other thing. They tell us you have a number of trunks in your room. We will not ask what you have in them. You may take those with you. But nothing else.’

This short section exemplifies everything that is in the book. Husna wants to tell the sisters to shove the trunks, in which she has been secreting away goodies anticipating this very event, but she’s a practical girl and takes them with her.

We see a similar situation in the last story in the book, ‘A Spoiled Man’, only at the bottom end of the social spectrum. The person who gets spoiled in this case is Rezak, a “funny little man” who the wife of Sohail Harouni, an American called Sonya, takes a shine to. She’s taken to living in Pakistan and for the most part she loves it but when in a bad mood she’s not beyond airing her reservations ether:

I hate it, everyone’s a crook, nothing works here!

These outbursts are rare though. She has a comfortable life even if there is only the one servant she really trusted with her son, the old majordomo, Ghulam Rasool.

I wasn’t familiar with the term ‘majordomo’ and so I looked it up:

A majordomo is a person who speaks, makes arrangements, or takes charge for another. Typically, the term refers to the highest (major) person of a household (domo) staff, one who acts on behalf of the (often absent) owner of a typically large residence. Similar terms include castellan, concierge, chamberlain, seneschal, Mayor of the Palace, maître d'hôtel, butler and steward. — Wikipedia

wedding5 I’d assumed it was an expression unique to Pakistan and perhaps India, a throwback to the days of the Raj, but it seems not. It is, however, one of a number of usual words that are not explained. For example, did you know that a Pakistani wedding consists of two parts, the shadi and the valima? I didn’t but I had to look them up to see why. A glossary, or footnotes, is something that would have been a great help in reading this book.

But back to Rezak. When he asks Ghulam Rasool about a job working in the garden the majordomo picks his moment and makes a request on his behalf to Sonya:

‘Begging your pardon, the local people drive their goats into the Ali Khan orchard, and they’re destroying the saplings that you brought from America. There’s an old man, he can’t do hard labour, but he's a reliable person. His family abandoned him. He even has his own portable hut — he’ll take it there and live as a guard. You don’t have to give him a salary. Just food and a few rupees for pocket money.

But she wanted to give the old man the same as all the others. It made her happy to think of spoiling him in his old age.

So Rezak moves his little “tin-clad cubicle” and takes up his new post. One day after a party in the garden Sonya discovers his little hut:

‘It’s wonderful!’ exclaimed Sonya, circling around the cubicle, Rezak at her heels. ‘Hey everyone,’ she called to her guests, going over to where she could be heard. ‘Come see.’

She pleads on his behalf to her husband:

‘The poor man should have electricity for a radio and for lighting. He lives all alone here, imagine how bored he is.’

‘Are you kidding?’ Harouni said [showing a less-Western perspective]. ‘These guys don’t get bored.’

His wife gets her way but, like Husna, as soon as Rezak gets comfortable with his good fortune, disaster strikes. On learning that the old man is childless “a young man who lived near his childhood home high in the mountains” says to him:

‘Look, my cousin has a daughter. Something went wrong when she was born, and she’s a bit simple. But she can cook and sew and take your goats out to graze. She’s quite pretty even. She’s young and can bear you a son. Her father can barely take care of his other children. Why don’t you let me arrange a marriage?’

‘You’re making fun of an old man,’ replied Rezak. But hope and desire pierced his heart when he thought of it. A woman in the house, even one who was not right in the head!

Not long after his precipitous marriage she goes missing. He appeals to Ghulam Rasool who arranges a search party but no trace is found of her. Sometime later, again picking his moment, Ghulam Rasool bring the matter up with his mistress and asks her to take the matter up with the police in Murree all the time realising that all she needed do was go into the living room and speak to Omar Bukhari, the son of the inspector general of police, who had just arrived at the party she was hosting.

The police take the matter up but perhaps as some kind of payback for being troubled with such a trifling matter the Deputy Superintendent of Police takes the view that Rezak had sold his wife on or killed her because she’d failed to provide an heir. After a beating and interrogation he is released with a warning never to speak about the matter to anyone. He is philosophical about it though:

Why should I complain? The policemen did as they always do. The fault is mine, who married in old age, with one foot in the grave. God gave me so much more than I deserved, when I expected nothing at all.

He returns to his hut and his good life and looks for nothing else bar the fact that he be allowed to be buried there. He is content to have risen one rung on the ladder. It is enough. Husna got to leave with her trunks, Rezak gets a cushy number to keep him going until he dies.

I mentioned Sohail Harouni earlier. He also features in an earlier story, ‘Our Lady of Paris’ only he’s not with Sonya at this point. No, he’s with Helen, the girl he “had begun dating two years earlier at Yale.” Helen, a lower middle class American, is dazzled and maybe even beguiled by Sohail's wealth. Her feelings for her son seem genuine but Sohail’s mother, Rafia, herself “a famous beauty, from a prominent, cultured Lucknow family,” isn’t so sure that the girl has considered the full implications of marrying into her family. When she learns that the couple are planning a holiday in Paris she arranges for her and her husband, Amjad, to meet up with them there. It takes time — no one it seems is in a rush to have an awkward conversation in this book — but final during an intimate tête-à-tête at the Hôtel Georges V the two lock horns. Again you know what’s going to happen but farm_house despite the fact it takes days to get to this point and the story ends without us knowing what happens to the couple we know what’s going to happen. Seeing Sohail a couple of tales later married to Sonya is no great surprise.

Mueenuddin’s own life is clearly mirrored in these stories. Born of a Pakistani father and American mother, he grew up in Wisconsin and Lahore, attended Yale and Dartmouth, then gave it all up to live at his ancestral farm in rural Pakistan which is where the story ‘Lily’ is set; Mueenuddin and his wife now manage the farm in Khanpur. The names may well have changed but what we get to see in this story is what might have happened if Helen was the one to marry Sohail and not Sonya. Lily, who is introduced to us a something of a party girl, falls for “Murad Talwan, nephew of the great Makhdom Talwan” who she end up marrying. Soon afterwards they end up living on his farm, known as Jalpana:

I want to be at the farm, [she says]. I’m going to be like and old-fashioned Punjabi wife, weighing out the flour and sugar every morning and counting the eggs. And everything locked up, a huge ring of keys on a chain around my waist.

A romantic notion, even a naïve one. You won’t be surprised when I tell you that she is disappointed; in fact disappointment runs through this book like a river carrying Mueenuddin’s characters towards their ends. Happiness is something they glimpse on the shore as they are swept past: one woman beloved develops a urinary-tract infection, then discovers she cannot bear children; a man finally achieves success, only to be diagnosed with cancer and we can easily imagine what lessons party girl Lily will learn when she discovers how hard it is to be virtuous.

The most interesting characters for me were the older ones, the wise one, the ones who have learned to play the game. Like judicial clerk Mian Sarkar who gets to play detective in ‘A Burning Girl’:

There is nothing connected with the courts of Lahore that he has not absorbed, for knowledge in this degree of detail can only be obtained by osmosis. Everything about the private lives of the judges, and of the staff, down to the lowest sweeper, is to him incidental knowledge. He knows the verdicts of the cases before they have been written, before they even have been conceived. He sees the city panoptically, simultaneously, and if he does not disclose the method and the motive and the culprit responsible for each crime, it is only because he is more powerful if he does not do so.

jeeves You could say much the same about the majordomo, Ghulam Rasool, or K K Harouni’s butler, Rafik. There’s a definite touch of the Jeeves in these men. And some of the women too but in the main the women are the ones who are fighting to stay afloat using whatever they have at their disposal, if only their sexuality. There’s a surprising amount of sex in this book although nothing graphic. It’s a form of currency and clearly an effective one.

It's possible to see here a scathing social critique of the death throes of an utterly corrupt system of patronage, but there is no overt political message in this book. Politics rarely raises its head, apart from local power plays. In interview the author says:

I am not a political writer, therefore my purpose is to write the finest stories that I am able to write, given my abilities. I don’t enjoy reading political literature, fiction or poetry. I think political writing is a limiting factor because when you have a political bias, it endears you to those who support you and alienates you from those who don’t. Life is much more nuanced than a cruel landowner beating his manager for sport. I don’t have a political agenda and I am not trying to eliminate or support feudalism. But I believe that one has to enter the sensibility of the character and have empathy with it. — Newsline Magazine

Religion is not discussed either — the only instance I can think of is when K K Harouni’s estranged wife announces “a pilgrimage to the holy places, in order to perform the umrah.” Again the term is not explained.

This book could have been a celebration of Pakistani culture but I felt the author in the background too often wagging his finger. The stories that focus on the poorer characters were the ones that had the most power for me. I didn’t have much sympathy for the Harounis even when they were being defrauded by their staff and forced to sell off land to meet debts and to fund their extravagant lifestyle.

When it comes to gender I found most of the men, especially the more well-to-do men, were content to see things hobble along the way they always had. The women showed more backbone but didn’t have the strength to effect real change.

In Other Rooms, Other Wonders was a finalist for the 2009 National Book Awards. In addition, it was selected among Time magazine’s top ten books of the year, Publishers Weekly’s top ten books of 2009, The Economist’s top ten fiction books of 2009, The Guardian’s best books of the year, The New Statesman’s best books of the year, and The New York Times’ hundred best books of the year. The book also received a 2009 National Book Award nomination and was nominated as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction. Not bad for a debut collection. There is no doubt that Mueenuddin can write. These are carefully crafted stories. That he is a devoted fan of Russian writers (Tolstoy, Chekov, Turgenev) is obvious. Although he writes for fun — “for me, writing is my play. It’s something I have enormous fun doing” – he is also well aware that his readers have expectations:

Oh yes, multiple drafts for every story. The polishing, the careful craftsmanship, is something I owe to the reader. I mean, if a guy makes a car you don’t expect the wheels to fall off when you take it for a drive. Writing is no different. The least I can do is to write the story as well as I possibly can. If people are spending their time and money on the book, I owe it to them. — Ultrabrown

You can read the title story online here.

There are quite a few interviews online but I found this one on PakUSonline particularly interesting.


Daniyal Mueenuddin Daniyal Mueenuddin was brought up in Lahore, Pakistan and Elroy, Wisconsin. He graduated magna cum laude from Dartmouth College and received his law degree from Yale. His stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, Zoetrope, and The Best American Short Stories 2008. For a number of years he practiced law in New York. This, I hasten to add, was after spending seven years managing his father’s farm. As he said in interview:

Well, my father was in his late 70s at the time (there was a big age difference between him and my mother), and there were powerful managers who were threatening to take over the farm, so the choice was between losing the property and moving back to Pakistan. It was difficult, yes: my Urdu was good but I spoke no Punjabi, which was the language in which most of the legal dealings were conducted, and I had to pick it up on the job, so to speak. There was an element of personal danger too – these were powerful people I was dealing with, including a Member of Parliament. — Ultrabrown

It was during this time he developed his writing skills. Since there was no telephone he ended up writing hundreds of letters. But it wasn’t until he had returned to the USA, got his degree and then returned to Pakistan that he wrote the stories included in this collection. In an interview in Beyond the Margins in February he said that he had only written 20 stories between 2002 and 2007. Before that he had written poetry exclusively.

His mother, Barbara Thompson Davis, was a writer in New York; she passed away in November 2009. His father, the late Ghulam Mueenuddin, was Secretary of Pakistan's Establishment Department, which administers the civil service, and later the country's chief election commissioner. He also wrote but as an amateur: memoirs, a novel and poetry for his own amusement.

Mueenuddin and his wife, the painter Rachel Jeanne Harris, now live on a farm in Khanpur, in Pakistan’s southern Punjab. He is currently working on a novel set in the 70′s in Pakistan about a love triangle but he also has some more short stories which are not set in Pakistan which he is looking to publish. It’ll be interesting to see how he does there. He does intend to return to the world of K K Harouni in the future:

To continue to create on a smaller scale something similar to Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha, which is to create a unified whole in my book. — Beyond the Margins

I’ll leave you with an interview with the author:

Daniyal Mueenuddin Interview: On Writing from RedFence Video

Sunday, 16 January 2011

What is a book?


When you sell a man a book you don't just sell him 12 ounces of paper and ink and glue. You sell him a whole new life. - Christopher Morley

What is a book?

No, seriously. Think about it for a moment. Is a book a container for words or the words contained therein? My first novel exists as a series of 0’s and 1’s stored on my computer’s hard drive, as a printed copy in my bookcase, as a professionally bound edition but more importantly it exists in my head. If all the computers died and some alien virus tore through the planet and destroyed every scrap of paper that exists on the planet would my book cease to exist?

At the end of Fahrenheit 451 Montag the conflicted fireman gets to meet living books:

"I want you to meet Jonathan Swift, the author of that evil political book, Gulliver's Travels! And this other fellow is Charles Darwin, and-this one is Schopenhauer, and this one is Einstein, and this one here at my elbow is Mr. Albert Schweitzer, a very kind philosopher indeed. Here we all are, Montag. Aristophanes and Mahatma Gandhi and Gautama Buddha and Confucius and Thomas Love Peacock and Thomas Jefferson and Mr. Lincoln, if you please. We are also Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John."

Everyone laughed quietly.

"It can't be," said Montag.

"It is," replied Granger, smiling. "We're book-burners, too. We read the books and burnt them, afraid they'd be found. Micro-filming didn't pay off; we were always travelling, we didn't want to bury the film and come back later. Always the chance of discovery. Better to keep it in the old heads, where no one can see it or suspect it. We are all bits and pieces of history and literature and international law, Byron, Tom Paine, Machiavelli, or Christ, it's here. And the hour is late. And the war's begun. And we are out here, and the city is there, all wrapped up in its own coat of a thousand colours. What do you think, Montag?"

"I think I was blind trying to do things my way, planting books in firemen's houses and sending in alarms."

Kim Peek Living books already exist and I’m not talking about someone with an eidetic memory like Kim Peek, the guy who inspired the film Rain Man. There is an organisation called the Human Library made up of living books:

A Living Book is a person, that has chosen to be a public representative of a certain group. An example of how people can be, if only minds are open long enough to find out, who and what they really are.

We talk about books speaking to us. Well this organisation takes that literally. They even have bestsellers.

What is a book?

At the end of The Day After Tomorrow books are also fuel but for a different reason. The survivors are freezing to death in a library. So they set fire to the books. One book survives though. A male employee clings to a rare copy of the Gutenberg Bible – the first printed book in history – and won’t give it up. Another survivor questions his motives by asking if he expects God to save him. He replies that he doesn’t believe in God. Rather, he is only saving this early edition of the Bible because its printing represents the beginning of ‘The Age of Reason.’ It’s not just a book. The words inside it aren’t important. But the book is.

That’s fiction, of course, but the fact is that people have actually risked the flames themselves to save a book:

Not long after the United States invaded Iraq, a memorable photograph appeared: an Iraqi man hurrying away from the Library of Baghdad through a smoky, chaotic street, his arms filled, overfilled, burdened down, with books. The books - some of them large and heavy, like art books or old records of some kind - may have been rare treasures, or they may have been merely whatever he could gather up in the confusion of the burning building. He may have been a librarian, or he may have been only a reader. I know he was not a looter, because his face showed not only distress and fear, but passionate grief.

One of the books in question was the Sarajevo Haggadah and this is not the first time it has escaped the flames:

A priest spared it from the book-burnings of the Inquisition in Venice in 1609 by writing in it "revisto per mi" – "I have approved this" – and signing his name. – Ursula K Le Guin, ‘The shelf-life of shadows’, The Guardian, 19th January 2008

rocketebook There’s a lot of talk about e-books at the moment. They wouldn’t have to worry about fire. Assuming they were backed up somewhere. The revolution has been promised/threatened for decades, the end of the printed page, yada yada, but it hasn’t happened yet and it hasn’t happened now. The technology is available but it was available ten years ago when my wife first bought me my Rocket eBook. The Rocket eBook when first introduced in 1998 retailed for $499. It weighs 22 ounces, can hold about 4000 pages and with a memory expansion up to 160,000 pages! Its battery life is around 40 hours without the backlight on. The Wikipedia article comparing e-book readers doesn’t even have it on its list any more. I liked it. It had cylindrical batteries which provided a nice ‘handle’ to hold the thing by and I’ve no idea how good the current devices are but it was perfectly readable even back then. You could add notes, underlining and bookmarks and change the font size from 10- to 28-point. It could read HTML, Word documents, and ASCII text files as well as its own custom format; no support for PDF unfortunately. But it didn’t set the world on fire.

Can I just mention here that I’ve never seen a film in 3D? The nearest I’ve gotten to it was a DVD my daughter bought me of Family Guy: Blue Harvest (its Star Wars recreation); it has a set of the old paper glasses but it just didn’t look right and I gave up. 3D is back in vogue again. And not just in multiplexes. 3D-TV is here. So they say. They say a lot of stuff. They said the book was dead and LPs. The cynics believe that it’s all a marketing ploy. I have mixed feelings about marketers. The worst kind of marketer will try to sell you something you don’t need for money you don’t have. At the moment they’re telling me that I need high definition. I am not joking, I can’t tell the difference between ordinary TV and HDTV. I have a HD-ready TV. It will take pictures up to a resolution of 1366 x 768. It’s not a huge TV. It’s 42" but that’s about twice the size of our old TV. All I can think of when I watch it is how huge it is. The first thing I watched on it was the latest Star Trek film and I was completely satisfied with the experience . . . and it wasn’t even hi def! I don’t need hi def.

Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered on September 28, 1987. At that time I had a black and white portable. I actually still have it even though it’s useless. When someone got me a video of the programme we borrowed a colour portable and watched it on that. In fact we watched it twice in a row. It had been years since I’d owned a colour TV. Just the colour was amazing. You see I remember the switch from black and white to colour in the late sixties. People said they would sit and watch nothing but the new colour test card and they were not joking. Everything was suddenly vibrant.

Now though you have to have hi def. You simply have to.

HDTV is a gimmick. 3DTV is a gimmick. E-book readers are a gimmick.

Gimmick (noun):

  • A device employed to cheat, deceive, or trick, especially a mechanism for the secret and dishonest control of gambling apparatus.
  • An innovative or unusual mechanical contrivance; a gadget.
  • An innovative stratagem or scheme employed especially to promote a project: an advertising gimmick.
  • A significant feature that is obscured, misrepresented, or not readily evident; a catch.

Some gimmicks catch on. Some do not. Gimmicks are not automatically bad but marketers have made us wary of anything strangers tell us we have to have or we will be unhappy.

Joneses_poster I watched a film over a while back called The Joneses. The Joneses are the Joneses that we’re all trying to keep up with, the people who are the first ones to have the must-have products: the cars, the video games, the watches, the dresses, the things that say so much about who we are. I do not need a 42" TV. I bought one because that’s what’s available, I can afford it, TV is something we watch a lot of and it was on offer (I shopped around for the best deal). Part of me thinks it looks ridiculous. What the hell am I doing with a think that size in my living room? I’ll get used to it though, like I got used to my last TV which was my first widescreen TV. I remember being so pleased with that purchase and now it looks such a sorry wee thing sitting in my office waiting to see what fate has in store for it.

I don’t actually have a lot of books. It’s something I feel guilty about. I’m a writer so I should have thousands of them. But I don’t. I have a few hundred. Maybe Carrie and I have a thousand between us, just. The problem for me was that I was never a voracious reader. My daughter is, as was her mother who could read a book day, but I think I’ve always had too much going on and reading was something that needed to be fitted in. When Carrie and I bought this flat we decided to move a bit further out to give us time to read on the bus. Before that we were barely on the bus for ten minutes and you can’t do any quality reading when you’re watching for your stop to come up. So we moved and started reading again. I even used my Rocket eBook a few times – I distinctly remember reading Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London on it – but not many. I felt a little self-conscious sitting there with this odd contraption not that anyone gave me a second glance at that time in the morning.

Things are changing. Things already have changed and will continue to change. A film used to be an experience. Then it became a thing in a box. You used to have to arrange your life around watching a film. I remember my dad taking me to see The Ten Commandments in the cinema and that was an experience; that would probably have been circa 1967. Now films have become ephemeral again. People watch them online, they stream them.

The same goes for music and even literature, if you go back far enough; you went to performances, you didn’t expect the performers to come to you or to be able to retain the performances in anything other than your memory. And then people learned how to cram all the experience into boxes and the possession of those boxes became the be all and end all for some people. They forgot what was in the boxes, some of them, and the boxes became symbols, nothing more, like the bottles of wine people spend small fortunes on never intending to drink.

I don’t have many first editions in my collection. Not ones that are worth anything apart from a copy of Dream of Fair to Middling Women which my wife bought me as a pressie. I have a few comics that are first editions which are worth a bob or two but there’s only one I haven’t read and that’s because it came already sealed with ‘bubblegum cards’ – or at least what I think of as bubblegum cards, trading cards, inside – and if I open it then it goes down in value. What I have read, however, is that the quality of the bag is not 250-gauge, high clarity, low density polyethylene and is actually damaging the comic. What do I do? Keep it as sold or protect my investment?

What is a book?

The_Exorcist_1971 I always thought a book was something to be read, in whole or in part. That it has the potential to be read isn’t really enough. Why buy a book and not read it? I’m just glad that generations to come will not have that to worry about because all they’ll be buying will be the code to display pixels on a screen. There will be no rare books any more. Or then again there might just be. If writers don’t distribute their books widely then you could see kids swapping code in the playgrounds of the future which I think they’ll find a lot easier than copies of The Exorcist which was the one I remember.

A book can be in more than one place at a time. A book can be more than one thing at a time.

What is a book? A series of little printed signs – essentially only that. It is for the reader to supply himself the forms and colours and sentiments to which these signs correspond. It will depend on him whether the book be dull or brilliant, hot with passion or cold as ice. Or, if you prefer to put it otherwise, each word in a book is a magic finger that sets a fibre of our brain vibrating like a harp-string, and so evokes a note from the sounding- board of our soul. No matter how skilful, how inspired, the artist's hand; the sound it wakes depends on the quality of the strings within ourselves. – Anatole France

On August 5th 2010, Google estimated that there were approximately 129,864,880 unique books in the world.

Sunday, 9 January 2011

The Houses of Belgrade


Arsénie Negovan, property-owner, is seventy-seven years old. It is the 3rd of June 1968 and he has not stepped outside his front door since the 27th of March 1941. For the past twenty-seven years he has run his business empire with the aid of his wife, Katarina, and the family lawyer, Mr Golovan, while he sits at his window peering at his women through a selection of binoculars: Simonida, Theodora, Emilia, Christina, Juliana, Sophia, Eugénie, Natalia, Barbara, Anastasia, Angelina . . . and those he could not see though his lenses he could picture in his mind’s eye. To each and every one he had been devoted and had been for many, many years. His wife knows all about them. How could she not? He has photos of them on the wall of his study. And scale models even!

The ‘women’ are, of course, houses, the things Arsénie Negovan prizes over everything else. Says Arsénie:

Houses are like people: you can’t foresee what they’ll offer until you’ve tried them out, got into their souls and under their skins.

Many people are property owners. Property is generally considered to be a sound investment. But financial gain is not what drives Arsénie. He has a “completely original angle” on property which he has managed to distil down to a number of axioms, the top four of which (the only four he can remember) are:

1. I do not own houses; we, I and my houses, own each other mutually.

2. Other houses do not exist for me; they begin to exist for me when they become mine.

3. I take houses only when they take me; I appropriate them only when I am appropriated; I possess them only when I am possessed by them.

4. Between me and my possessions a relationship of reciprocal ownership operates; we are two sides of one being; the being of possession.

Freud said it was sex; Jung, belonging; Viktor Frankl, meaning and Adler, power. In one of his essays, however, Pekić singled out “the will to possess” as one of the most powerful driving forces in our world, a phenomenon which inevitably influences even the “spiritual and moral side of man.”[1]

Although he was responsible for the construction of some houses – always houses intended for residential occupation, Arsénie had no interest in business properties or offices – his real joy came in discovering some new building, desiring and then acquiring “her”. Borislav Pekić’s novel The Houses of Belgrade (which was originally published under the title The Pilgrimage of Arsenije Njegovan and is the first in a Austrian Academy of Sciences series of novels about the Njegovan family), concentrates on one particular house, the house his cousin, Stefan, build on Kosmajska Street, No. 41, a “free, and certainly lighter and more intelligent, copy of Dietrich and Eizenhofer’s Acadamy of Sciences in Vienna,” known, by the neighbours as “Stefan’s folly” but to become known by Arsénie, even before he tried to buy her, as Niké:

Niké was the secret name I gave to the house as soon as we fell in love.

He begins visiting Stefan more and more often:

Indeed, during my ever more frequent visits to Stefan all that happened between myself and his house can hardly be described in any other way than adultery, and since it all took place under cover of the host’s innocent hospitality, adultery in the most shameful of circumstances. ... Our romantic meetings in the street can also be counted here, for in the course of my business walks, which I continued according to the schedule in my saffian notebook, I used to pass her every day at a predetermined time. On these occasions quite brazenly, almost leaning out over her luxurious conservatories and balconies, she would give herself up to my wondering gaze, and her face, intent on keeping our sinful secret, would let slip those four clear Corinthian tears which I could only interpret as unsatisfied desire for me.

It is not love at first sight however. Oh, no. Far from it. His first opinion is that the building is a “monstrosity” and he is as obsessed with having it pulled down as he later becomes in owning it. But acquiring the house is not as easy as making an offer to his cousin. After much effort on Arsénie’s part Stefan does agree to put the house up for auction and this is where Arsénie is headed on the 27th of March 1941 when things go wrong for him and he ends up surrounded by a mob protesting against the assumption of power by General Simović.

A bit of history: On March 25th 1941 in Vienna, Prince Paul of Yugoslavia, signed the Tripartite Pact. On March 27th the regime was overthrown by a military coup d'état and the 17-year-old King Peter II of Yugoslavia seized power. General Simović was appointed prime minister. On the morning of 27th March, first in Belgrade and then in other cities, people took to the streets. They rose the slogans "Rather war than the pact", "Rather death than slavery", "We demand a pact with the Soviet Union, not with Germany", etc. This put the new government in an awkward position since they wanted to keep good relations with Germany. Several hours after the coup d'état, in the morning of 27th March, the new Yugoslav foreign minister, Momčilo Ninčić, assured the German envoy in Belgrade that Yugoslavia would continue a friendly policy towards Germany, and on 5th April he proposed direct talks with the German government. The talks, however, never happened. Adolf Hitler correctly surmised that the British were behind the coup against Prince Paul and vowed to invade the country. The German bombing of Belgrade began on 6th April 1941. In the early hours of 13th April the 8th Panzer Division drove into Belgrade, occupied the centre of the city, and hoisted the Swastika flag.

This is one of the most interesting sections of the book because here Arsénie begins interrogating himself to get to the truth he feels is buried in this memory. And Belgrade 1941all the while this cross-examination is going on we also get to hear snippets of what the crowd is shouting. It sounds like it would be very confusing to read. Surprisingly it is not.

Some time earlier Arsénie had “been asked to give a lecture at the Jubilee of the Circle of the Sisters of Serbia ... under the general title ‘The Different Faces of Belgrade,’ which was to take place ... in the large hall of the Kolarac Institute B.P..” During this he proposed to expound upon the “benefits of the equal, reciprocal dual-phase type” of ownership. He does not, however, get the opportunity to explain his “philosophy of Possession”; after presenting his outline to one of the initiators of the function, Joakim Teodorović, Teodorović himself steps in and delivers the lecture in his stead; Arsénie is not even permitted to attend as a guest.

So, what happens when he inadvertently manages to attract the mob’s attention? He delivers his speech verbatim there and then amid cheers and derisory remark and ends up being beaten up for his trouble. Needless to say he does not make the auction and Niké becomes another man’s.

Twenty-seven years pass. Arsénie becomes a recluse. He loses interest in the outside world, with the sole exception of his houses. He even stops listening to the radio or reading the papers. At first he and his wife receive a steady stream of visitors and guests but, little by little, put off by Arsénie’s disinterest in current events, these dry up. Occasionally he overhears a bit of news and is under the delusion that he still has his finger on the pulse but the simple fact is that he hasn’t a clue what’s happening in the world. What then could possibly induce him to go outside after all this time?

You’ve guessed. A ‘woman’.

He has learned that “the lovely Greek Simonida with her fine, dark countenance, her milky complexion beneath deep blue eyelids, and her full-blooded lips pierced by a bronze chain, African style” is going to be knocked down. “It was with Simonida that [he] began to give the houses names. First just ordinary ones, then personal ones.”

I always chose feminine names. I didn’t do this because, in our language, the words house, block, palace, villa, residence, even log cabin, hut, shack, are all of feminine gender, whereas building, country-house, and flat are masculine, but rather because I couldn’t have entertained towards them any tenderness, not to mention lover’s intimacy, if by any chance they had borne coarse masculine names.

Arsénie determines to visit her one last time and put a stop to demolition but as soon as he steps out of the door he steps into his past. Memories, beginning with the October Revolution, carry him down this street and then that. In his mind he is once again swept away with the mob and then, in what depending on how charitable you feel is either a contrivance on the author’s part or one heck of a coincidence, Arsénie this time finds himself caught up in the student riots of 1968.

Another bit of history: The 1968 Yugoslavian student riots began on the night of June 2nd with a clash between the students and the police in Studentski Grad, a student district in the capital of Belgrade. A popular theatre company were booked to play the university but there were not enough tickets. The students requested that they perform at the university's large open-air amphitheatre but instead authorities arranged for them to play a smaller venue and only make seats available to youth members of the ruling Communist party. On the night of the show, a large group of students gathered outside the theatre and attempted to force their way in. The police intervened with guns, and the situation escalated into a street battle. This was just the catalyst.

Due to the country’s economic and social reforms unemployment was high, particularly amongst graduates, many of whom had to wait one or two years for a job; belgrade68 others moved abroad to find work. Following this encounter with the police the students occupied the Belgrade University where they formulated a four point “action program.” In the morning the neighbourhood student action committee called for a demonstration against police violence in the city centre in front of parliament. Several thousand students took part in the demonstration which was brutally attacked by the police. High-ranking politicians tried to calm the situation but failed. In the afternoon about 10,000 students occupied all Faculties of Belgrade University, proclaiming a strike. The students used loudspeakers to address people in the streets.

This time Arsénie does not get to give any speech but he does lose his hat, a Boer, which he risks life and limb to retrieve:

[I]t was a question of principle: That hat was mine; it belonged to me by inalienable right of ownership. One might say that all revolutions began with hats, with the destruction of the outward signs of dignity.

Battered and bruised he survives this second encounter, makes his way home and writes his will “on the back of tax forms and rent receipts,” whatever comes to hand. In fact it is his will we have been reading up until this point, certainly, if it was a real will, one of the longest one could imagine. In between the recollections and the misremembering – like his buildings his mind is also crumbling – we have his various bequests not all of which can ever be met because Arsénie no longer has a true picture of his world let alone the world at large; he no longer possesses some of the items he wishes to bequeath and not all of the beneficiaries are alive to learn of their good fortune.

The book ends with a two-page Postscriptum in which Pekić explains how he came in possession of the manuscript and his relationship to Arsénie Negovan. These last two pages are quite illuminating and provide a rather sad coda to a most unusual life.

The novel was not well received by the government when it was first published and Pekić was accused of being a supporter of the students although he did not share their radical Marxist ideology in the least. (All they had to do was read the book to know that.) Consequently, when he decided to leave Yugoslavia and move to England in 1970, he was refused a passport and had to wait for a year before he could join his wife and daughter abroad. The NIN following year the book won the prestigious NIN annual award as the best Yugoslav novel, and Pekić was finally granted a passport and left for England.

Arsénie Negovan is self-centred, obsessed and cantankerous, but there is something appealing about him too; we Brits have a fondness for eccentrics. Through his eyes we get a unique take on Yugoslavian history and through the metaphor of the gradual decline of a builder's mind, Pekić allows us to examine the nature of identity, alienation and the fear of loss. Houses become people and it’s easy to see how a man who had been locked up for five years with only a Bible to read could write the following:

For just as people who have done nothing at all wrong are got rid of simply because they stand in the way of something, so houses too are destroyed because they impede somebody's view, stand in the way of some future square, hamper the development of a street, or traffic, or of some new building.

Of course Arsénie’s logic is back to front but his point is valid nevertheless.

It took me a little while to get into the book but once I did it flows nicely. The only things that really bothered me were the fact that there are no chapter breaks (I like my books chopped up into chunks) and Arsénie has a habit whenever “excited or in a difficult position” of lapsing into French and my French is not very good.

You can read an excerpt here and see a scanned copy of most of it, c/o Google Books, here.


BorislavPekic Borislav Pekić is considered one of the most important literary figures of the 20th century. He was born on 4th February 1930 to a prominent family in Montenegro and died in London on 2nd July 1992 of lung cancer. From 1945 until he moved to London in 1971, he lived in Belgrade. After World War II, Pekić co-founded and led as vice president the secret "Yugoslav Democratic Youth" organization; he personally took charge of ideology, propaganda, and the work of a secret printing shop. Due to his opposition to the Communist regime, he was arrested in 1948 and sentenced to 15 years in prison, but released after 5 years.

In 1953 he began studying experimental psychology at the University of Belgrade Faculty of Philosophy, although he never earned a degree.1958 marked the year of his marriage to Ljiljana Glišić, an architect and the niece of Dr Milan Stojadinović, Prime Minister of Yugoslavia and the publication of his first of over twenty film scripts, among which The Fourteenth Day represented Yugoslavia at the 1961 Cannes Film Festival. This success did however not soften the official ban issued by the ruling Communist Regime on the publication of any of Pekić's literary works. His first book, Time of Miracles, was only published in 1965 many years after the manuscript had been completed.

In 1985 he was elected to the Serbian Academy of Science and Arts and was made a member of the Advisory Committee to The Royal Crown. Posthumously, in 1992, Alexander, Crown Prince of Yugoslavia awarded him the Royal Order of the Two-headed White Eagle, being the highest honour bestowed by a Serbian monarch.


‘Crowd Ask Arms’, New York Times, 27th March 1941. This is a transcription. You can view the scanned original here.

Želimir Žilnik, ‘Yugoslavia: “Down With The Red Bourgeoisie!”’, German Historical Institute, Washington DC, Bulletin Supplement 6 (2009), pp.181-187

Z. Antic, ‘Yugoslav Youth Insist on Further Reforms and Democratization’, Radio Free Europe Research

Jelena Milojković-Djurić, Borislav Pekić’s Literary Oeuvre: A Legacy Upheld


[1] Bogdan Rakić, Borislav Pekić: Sysiphus as Hero

This is an expanded version of the review that originally appeared on Canongate’s site.

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