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

Sunday 29 September 2013

How long should it take to write a novel?


I don't give a damn what other people think. It's entirely their own business. I'm not writing for other people. – Harold Pinter, interview, Dec. 1971

I loved maths at school. I was in the top maths class and I should’ve got an A in my O-Level without batting an eye but I was cocky and rushed and ended up with a B which, to this day, embarrasses the hell out of me. I liked pure mathematics: If A=2 and B=3 then evaluate 2(A + B). 2 + 3 = 5 x 2 = 10. Lovely. And then came the problems: If it takes a man 13 minutes to run 5000m then how long will it take him to run 10000? Simple—26 minutes. Only that’s not the case. The world record for the 5000m is 12min 56.98sec whereas it’s 26min17.53sec for the 10000m because the guy who ran the second half of that 10000m race had already run 5000m and wasn’t fresh.

Here’s another one: If a guy writes a novel in ten days how long will it take him to finish five novels? Now this is a really tricky one. Many people have written a novel in a matter of a few weeks, even great novels:

Some of the greatest writers in literature wrote quickly—many of them in longhand. Alexandre Dumas, Jules Verne, and Charles Dickens were amazingly prolific, and their works have remained on bookshelves for more than a century and a half.  Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol, one of the best-loved novels of all time, in a feverish frenzy that lasted about six weeks.  William Faulkner wrote his classic As I Lay Dying in the same amount of time and claimed to have published his first draft “without changing a word.” – ‘The Mathematics of Productivity’, Kevin J. Anderson

Michael Moorcock used to churn out his early sword-and-sorcery action-adventure in about "three to ten days" each. And in his case—because he a) was well-prepared and b) worked to a formula—he could say, hand on heart, “I’ll give you five novels within the next two months” but let’s face it (and he would be the first to admit it) this would not be great literature. (You can read his method here.) I don’t know if Amanda Hocking read Moorcock’s guidelines but she certainly has his mindset:

Each book takes between two and four weeks to write, and she sells them for between 99¢ and $2.99. In the past 18 months, she has grossed approximately $2 million.

"I've seen other authors doing the exact same thing as I have, similar genres and similar prices," she told The New York Times, "and they're selling reasonably well, but they're not selling nearly as well as I am." –Nick Duerden, ‘Want to be a Kindle millionaire? Write novels about trolls’, The Independent, 16 November 2011

There are loads of articles out there. Here’s a wee video that tell you How to Write a Book in 14 Days in 2 minutes and 12 seconds:

Every years thousands set aside the month of November for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) with the aim of writing a novel in thirty days. And many have. My wife has. I haven’t.

The numbers vary but there a lot of people out there regularly producing three, four, five or more novel-length manuscripts every year. Kevin J. Anderson, who I quote above, has published over 100 books over the last twenty years—about five a year on average. He doesn’t regard himself as exceptional—if you’re looking for the exceptions to the rule have a look at 20 Most Prolific Authors and Writers in Literary History—he’s just a jobbing writer. If he were a plumber and installed five bathroom suites in a year you’d wonder what he was doing with the rest of his time. Why is writing so different? It’s a craft after all, isn’t it? The same goes for Dean Wesley Smith:

I wrote my first published novel in 1986 and it came out in 1988 from Warner. But for the moment let’s forget about that one and just start from my second novel written and published in 1992 after I got done with Pulphouse.

That was 19 years ago!!!  (I didn’t need to think about that.) I have published 104 traditional novels now since 1992 (none indie published yet…all through New York companies). All of them were between 70,000 and 100,000 words.

That’s a 5.4 novels-per-year pace FOR NINETEEN YEARS. – Dean Wesley Smith, 'Four Novels A Year: The Math of It. Again.'

Ray Bradbury said "Quantity eventually equals quality." It’s open to misinterpretation. What he’s saying is that practice makes perfect. And that is true. But churning out formulaic novels one after the other will not make you a great writer. The Prousts of this world come along once in every generation.

I transcribed the following a wee while back:

KG: The book took a huge amount of work—seven years in the writing—and in that time, yes, I asked myself if I was completely mad.

SP: Do you ever sort of think to yourself: I could have spend six months and written a bestseller?

KG: [laughs] I wish!

SP: Is it not in… Is it not something you couldn’t…

KG: Just can’t do it. Either you’re going to write for entertainment (which has all kinds of wonderful things including a nice cheque at the end normally) or you’re an artist in which case you’re launching yourself on this extraordinary voyage into the unknown; we don’t know where we’re going to land; we don’t even know if we’re going to come home again. – Kirsty Gunn interviewed by Sue Perkins on The Culture Show: Edinburgh Festival, 22nd August 2012-09-12

The Big MusicKirsty Gunn has recently published The Big Music, not her first book—I counted another six on her website—she published her first in 1994 so that’s an average of one book every three years. Needless to say she has to do other stuff to make sure all her bills get paid (e.g. she’s Professor of Writing Practice and Study at the University of Dundee).

Who’re the real writers then, Anderson and Smith or Gunn? There will be people who will opt for the jobbing writers and there will be those who’ll say the literary novelist. And both have a case. Will Gunn’s The Big Music win the Man Booker Prize? Who knows? But I bet more people will have read any one of Anderson’s many Dune spin-offs.

On Karen Ranny’s blog I read this:

I just read an author’s comment about having written five books a year, and I’m absolutely stunned.  Not that she would write five books a year, but that she would admit it.

I’m prejudiced; I admit that.  Here’s my prejudice: Humans aren’t writing machines.  We’re people.  We need to recharge. Unless we’re writing the same scenes over and over, or the same plots over and over, the mind needs to have time to re-imagine; the spirit needs to renew. – Karen Ranny, ‘5 Books a Year? Are You Nuts?’

Julian Barnes has Flaubert say to us in his novel, Flaubert’s Parrot:

Books aren’t made in the way that babies are made: they are made like pyramids. There’s some long pondered plan, and then great blocks of stone are placed one on top of the other, and it’s back-breaking, sweaty time-consuming work. And all to no purpose! It just stands like that in the desert! But it towers over it prodigiously. Jackals piss at the base of it and bourgeois clamber to the top of it, etc.

My friend Lis Hanscombe included that quote in one of her articles and this is a part of my response (which is what started me thinking about all of this in the first place):

I watched a programme about waves recently. Not like me to save a science programme but the blurb in the TV paper intrigued me: waves are not made of water. Preposterous, of course. What else would they be made of? The answer's so blindingly obvious: energy. Waves are an illusion. Yes, the water moves but it never moves very far; it’s the energy that passes on to the next wave. So a wave is not an object, it is a process. And this raises a lot of interesting issues about what exactly an object is. It is energy frozen in time. And anything that can be frozen can be defrosted. A brick may not look as if it’s in a state of flux but it is. It will not stay a brick forever. And it’s the same with us. Humans are a process.

I don’t set out to write sonnets or sestinas. They’re not beyond me but I feel they’re artificial. And, of course, they are. There will be those who will argue that all art is artificial and they have a case. I do write novels or at least book length pieces of prose that most people would identify as a novel but I don’t plan my novels either. People divide writers into two categories—plotters and pantsers—and I identify more closely with pantsers than plotters but I don’t think about writing as flying by the seat of my pants. Or if it is it’s flying in slow motion. Writing for me is a natural process. I can begin with pretty much any line you throw at me. Some take me to more interesting places than others. If I get bored I stop and look for something else to write. I don’t understand those writers who when they’ve completed one novel jump straight into another—actually the best example I can think of is a Kathleen Jaimiefilmmaker, Woody Allen—but I do relate strongly to what Kathleen Jamie had to say in her article in The Guardian. She says,

It seems to me that if you know precisely what you've done, or are going to do, then it's a project. Projects are not art. Art proceeds without a map.

Each book I write—and every story, poem and play—is an exploration. It is a process and I agree completely with what Paul Valéry had to say about poems (although I would apply it to all fiction): “A poem is never finished, only abandoned.” I continue until I have seen enough—not necessarily everything there might be to see—and then stop. If I didn’t do that people … would not be able to take my words and look beyond them … and continue the process. As Samuel Johnson says, “A writer only begins a book. A reader finishes it.” We are not builders; we are architects.


Procrastination is another one of those terms—like writer’s block and inspiration—that people often get the wrong idea about. I think of procrastination as a wilful putting off of something, deliberately dragging ones feet. As Jamie writes:

[B]eginning a new work is not a matter of finding a topic to write ‘about’. First of all but you've to spend time – years! – frequenting the scrap yard or the sewing box, cobbling together a new self, then letting it find its way.

I feel guilty that I’m not writing a book now—what I am writing is poetry and that’s fine because at least I’m writing—but really it’s not guilt, it’s that word I invented (or discovered a need for) when writing [my fifth novel] Left, guilst—as angst is to anguish to guilst is to guilt—and I have nothing really to feel bad about because natural processes take their own sweet time.

Can you tell the difference between real pearls and artificial ones? I couldn’t. Is the difference worth all the extra effort involved?

In the same 1971 interview I quoted from at the start of this article Harold Pinter also said this:

I sometimes wish desperately that I could write like someone else, be someone else. No one particularly. Just if I could put the pen down on paper and suddenly come out in a totally different way.

I get that. I keep imagining that every other writer out there has it easier than me. When I read about how disciplined many writers are it depresses me no end. I finished my fifth novel almost two years ago and have yet to start a new book-length project. I wrote some 4000 a while back but felt that I was doing it for all the wrong reasons, so I could say to everyone that I was working on my sixth novel, but really that’s not the case. I’m nowhere at the moment. And so I related strongly to how Kathleen Jamie ended this interview:

No, this interview with you is the last thing I’m going to do around this book. I’ll draw a line under it and try and enter a place of emptiness again, out of which a new piece of work may or may not come in the next decade. – Rosemary Goring, 'Kathleen Jamie: The SRB Interview', Scottish Review of Books, Volume Eight, Issue Two

The InstructionsA decade! There’s something quite terrifying about something that might take ten years—an eighth of one’s life if one is strong—to complete. Just imagine devoting ten years to something and it’s a dud. It took Adam Levin nine years to write The Instructions working on average six hours a day, seven days a week whilst holding down a teaching post (he took one week’s vacation a year), during the middle of which his back gave out and so he had to write for two years standing up. Okay it is a big book but still, can you just imagine having lived with a host of characters for nine years and then find yourself faced with scrapping all of that and beginning afresh? In her article Kathleen Jamie puts it this way:

If the self that made the work is demobbed when the work is done, then it follows that to begin a new work—impossible thought!—you have first to construct a new self. That's the tricky bit.

A new self. Surely she’s exaggerating. A tweet from Linda Aragoni:

Finished writing a book yesterday. Had a burger to celebrate. Began writing next book.

That’s not me. And I’m not alone. Here’s part of an interview with Virginia Euwer Wolff:

Don Gallo: Most writers of books for teenagers publish a book every year, some even more frequently. You average more than three years between books—with Bat 6 coming five years after Make Lemonade. Why such a long time?

Virginia Euwer Wolff: I'm a very slow writer, and evidently I like it that way. I take a long time to think things through; I'm just not a speedy thinker. (Eight months to find a name for the narrator of Make Lemonade is a really, really long time. I knew one would come to me, and one did. Verna LaVaughn got two names, my attempt at recompense to her for having to wait so long.) I have to go through a lot of wrong drafts before the right one arrives.

YA has been flavour of the month for a while now and writers are just chucking books out hoping, I suppose, to be the next Hunger Games. And that’s fine if that’s why you write. The reasonable-prolific author John Scalzi talks on his site about George R.R. Martin though:

George Martin’s … novel, A Feast for Crows, came out in 2005, the same year as my novel Old Man’s War. Since OMW, I have written The Ghost Brigades, The Last Colony, Zoe’s Tale, Fuzzy Nation, and my upcoming 2012 novel (Agent to the Stars and The Android’s Dream were written prior to 2005). Martin’s written A Dance with Dragons. So I get credited with being reasonably prolific whilst Martin gets slammed by the more poorly socialized members of his fan base for slacking about.


Why did it take six years for A Dance With Dragons to come out? Because that’s how long it took. – John Scalzi, 'A Small Observation Regarding Words and Releases'

He opens this short article by saying, “I’ve noted before that comparing one author’s process and career with another’s is a situation fraught with difficulty (and often, some stupidity)…” and I have to agree with him because writing is not plumbing. I wish it was. You have no idea how much I wish that writing was just a craft that one could study, practice and pass exams to say that you’re a certified writer.

Times are a-changing. And we have those pesky ebooks to blame for that. Julie Bosman wrote an interesting article in The New York Times about just exactly how things are changing. She cites the author Lisa Scottoline as an example:

“It used to be that once a year was a big deal,” said Lisa Scottoline, a best-selling author of thrillers. “You could saturate the market. But today the culture is a great big hungry maw, and you have to feed it.”


Ms. Scottoline has increased her output from one book a year to two, which she accomplishes with a brutal writing schedule: 2,000 words a day, seven days a week, usually “starting at 9 a.m. and going until Colbert,” she said. – Julie Bosman, ‘Writer’s Cramp: In the E-Reader Era, a Book a Year Is Slacking’, The New York Times, 12 May 2012

Bosman does, however, add the following proviso:

(The new expectations do not apply to literary novelists like Jeffrey Eugenides and Jonathan Franzen, who can publish a new novel approximately every decade and still count on plenty of high-profile book reviews to promote it.)

So why does it take so long to write a literary novel? It’s not like they’re reinventing the wheel. Actually I think that’s exactly it. This quote is talking about Virginia Woolf:

The Voyage Out was begun during the summer of 1907 and submitted for publication in March 1913. No one knows exactly how many times it was rewritten. Virginia's husband, Leonard Woolf, recalled that 'she once opened a cupboard and found in it (and burnt) a whole mountain of MSS; it was The Voyage Out which she had rewritten (I think) five times from beginning to end'. But why did it take so long to write? For its author, everything seemed to hang on it. Virginia had always known that she would become a writer, perhaps even an important writer. [...] She had embarked upon it, her first novel had to justify her commitment, not just to others, but to herself. She was a perfectionist, and each new draft disappointed her high hopes and increased her fear of failing. – Julia Briggs, Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life, p.4

For several years prior to attempting this she’d been reading popular novels which she found predictable, both plots and characters. So she really was sitting down to write something new, not just a novel in name. Surely it’s only someone like Woolf who would do something like that. Oh, no. Here’s Kirsty Gunn talking about the “pibroch structure” of The Big Music:

Like Woolf, Gunn wanted to write something new. In an Edinburgh International Book festival podcast she said: “I think on the whole I’m kind of bored rigid by narrative lines and I certainly go rushing from the room when I hear that ghastly phrase ‘the narrative arc.’ Oh my lord, when you feel the cavalry riding over the hill that carries with it the entire plot, the back story and, yes, the inevitable conclusion. These kinds of thing make my blood run cold.” She says, going back to the video, “I often think—and I’m not alone in this—I think I have more in common with artists, with painters and sculptors that I do with writers. I often think I have more in common with musicians. This sense of… There’s a wonderful line by Rauschenberg where he talks about ‘the function of art is to remove the image from that other thing’.” I get that because when I read about these writers who churn out books I don’t feel any affinity; they’re something else, not me. I hasten to add here that I do not mean they are less than me although I’m sure there will be those snobs amongst the literati who think that they are. I admire them. But I’m not one of them.

Could I write 500 words of flash fiction on any given subject at the drop of a hat. Yes. I’m enough of a writer to be able to do that. And with a bit of reworking it might even be publishable. If you gave me a plot and asked me to fill in the blanks could I do it? Again, I’m sure I could. I’m fairly confident in my abilities. The real issue is why I write. I don’t write to sell books. There have been those who have asked about a third instalment to the ‘Truth’ novels and it’s perfectly doable. The second book ends on a cliff-hanger; everything set up and ready. But the thought of going back into that universe just makes me ache. I did a wee Q+A a while ago where the Jonathan and Truth were interviewed rather than me. Now that was fun, to put on those characters for an hour, but that was enough. And a sequel to Milligan and Murphy would be easy. But I never wrote any of those books to tell a story and that’s where the real distinction comes as far as I’m concerned. I’m not a storyteller. I use writing to work out problems. Like Pinter put it in an early essay:

I have usually begun a play in quite a simple manner; found a couple of characters in a particular context, thrown them together and listened to what they said, keeping my nose to the ground. – Harold Pinter, ‘The Echoing Silence’, The Guardian, 31 December 2008

That’s me. In Living with the Truth I have a bloke answer his door to find the personification of truth standing there. I had no idea what was going to happen but at the time of writing the book I was having to face up to some not entirely pleasant truths about myself and this was the way I ended up examining them without being all clichéd about it and writing autobiography.

How long should it take to write a novel? The answer—which we all knew all along—is: It depends. There is a need for entertainment and there is a need for art and all points in between. There is a reader for every book. If you’re lucky, more than one.

Sunday 22 September 2013

Night Boat


If you are interested in 'meeting the Buddha' and following his example, then you should realize that the path the Buddha taught is primarily a study of your own mind and a system for training your mind. This path is spiritual, not religious. Its goal is self-knowledge, not salvation; freedom, not heaven. And it is deeply personal. – Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche

There is a lot of meditation in this book. A lot. A lot of what most people, westerners certainly, would regard as doing nothing and thinking about nothing (mu) and that, I admit, on the surface of things does sound awfully boring and it would be if that was all Alan Spence’s new book was about. Thankfully, its subject, Hakuin Ekaku one of the most influential figures in Japanese Zen Buddhism, was not a big fan of "Do-nothing Zen" and from the very first page I found myself enchanted by the boy I encountered there. This happened, too, when I recently read The Last Banquet—I loved the child we met on page 1 eating beetles although wasn’t nearly as enamoured with the man as he grew up—but with Night Boat there was never a point where I went off the lad we’re first introduced to as Iwajiro who becomes the young monk Ekaku and ultimately the head priest Hakuin; although he gains experience and eventually attains enlightenment, he never loses that childish innocence. Perhaps if he had gone to a military academy instead of a Zen temple his story might have been very different.

Iwajiro of the Nagasawa family is eight when we’re initially introduced to him. He’s not eating beetles. He’s been taken by his father “to hear [a] monk deliver a sermon, on the Eight Burning Hells.” It is a defining moment in the young boy’s life:

[F]rom that day on, everything had changed. The fear was always there.

He finally admits his fears to his mother:

If hell is waiting for us, how can we not be afraid? And if there is no escape, what is the point of anything we do?

His brother is less sympathetic and pretends to be a demon: “You’re going to burn in hell . . .” he calls out to his brother that night “from behind the shoji screen [in a] thin and wavery … demon-voice.”

The next day his mother, once she can find the time for her son (an unexpected visitor takes up much of her day), introduces him to the Tenjin Sutra:

Tenjin is the deity of Kitano shrine, she said. In life he was Michizane, a scholar and poet, a great calligrapher. As a god he is Tenjin, with the power of fire and thunder. He can drive out angry ghosts and conquer the fear of hell.


All you have to do, said my mother, is chant the sutra, every morning when you wake and every night before you sleep. It is only a few lines long, a hundred Chinese characters, but it is very powerful.

To reinforce what she’s told her son she takes him to the Sanen-ji temple which was literally across the road from where they lived. There a young monk, a very different man to the one who’d scared him with tales of hellfire, underlined what his mother had already told him with one proviso:

[T]he best time to pray to [Tenjin] is the hour of the ox, between two and three in the morning.

Responding to the mother’s unease he qualifies this by suggesting that, bearing in mind his age, Iwajiro should simply meditate as early as he could, but this is where we see the boy’s mettle because he does begin to wake in the early hours to do as he’s been bid despite his father’s disapproval. For months he continues with his devotions encouraged by his mother. That his father would not be more supportive is a little strange—for a few years he trained for the priesthood—but at least he doesn’t try too hard to dampen his spirits.

Nichiren_Daishonin_Hakii_PortraitA puppet show some time later reinforces the boy’s burgeoning beliefs. It was the story of Nichiren or Nisshin-shonin. In 1427—so about two hundred years before Iwajiro was born—Nisshin wrote a book, Rissho Chikokuron, and sent it to the shogun Ashikaga Yoshinori. The book was critical of the Ashikaga regime and, as a result, Nisshin was arrested, imprisoned and horribly tortured for two years. One of the tortures was placing a hot pot on his head, and since then he was called Nabe kamuri Nisshin, meaning “Nisshin with pot on his head". He copes with the torture by chanting a sutra similar to the one Iwajiro had been practicing. On his way home the boy announces to his mother that he intends to leave home and become a monk like Nisshin. His mother does not object: “Yes, she said. Yes. When it’s time.”

That time comes only a few years later when he reaches fourteen. He’s initially accepted into the Shoin-ji order—this was a Nichiren temple—but, after a few weeks, is transferred to Daisho-ji; the old high priest felt that living so close to home was perhaps not in the boy’s best interests. Whatever his reasons the new environment agrees with the young novice and he throws himself into his studies. The high priest at Daisho-ji is a plain speaker. When, for example, he learns where the boy, now going by Ekaku (which means ‘Wise Crane’), has come from he says of the high priest:

That old fart … He hasn’t had a thought in years. He should just write a death-verse and pack his bags and be done with it.

So it’s not surprising that when he’s finished his study of the Lotus Sutra—in honour of his mother, as the teachings of Nichiren had sustained her all her life— Ekaku tells the high priest that although the text contains “absolute jewels … they are hidden amongst so much dross, they are hard to find.” This direct, honest way of approaching Zen never leaves him and I can see why a Scot like Spence—we Scots do like to call a spade a spade—would be attracted to Hakuin as a character although we have many chapters to wade through before we see that name appear.

I chose the verb ‘wade’ not to suggest that the book is hard going because it’s not a hard read but then again it’s not a quick read. This is a man’s life here; you wouldn’t expect to flit through it in an afternoon. It took me about a week to read the 441 pages but I was in no rush to get to the end.

Of course by the end we’ve got what we pretty much expected—even if you know nothing about the subject before you start, the ending isn’t too hard to work out—but it’s not a disappointment that everything works out in the end, rather a vindication.

In his review of the book in The Guardian Allan Massie writes:

For all its merits and beauties, this is a novel which more readers may start than finish. Many indeed are likely to be deterred by the subject, but even those who embark on the voyage may find they are soon lost. Nor have the publishers helped them. I perforce read it in a proof copy which lacks a glossary for the many Japanese words; footnotes explaining such terms as “koan” and “kensho” and phrases like “Namu myoho renge kyo” would have been more welcome still. Perhaps this deficiency has been remedied in the finished copy. If not, it should have been.

I can see where he’s coming from and yet personally I didn’t find this an impediment to my enjoyment of the book. To be fair, some of the words are explained but Massie’s right, perhaps not enough for readers who know nothing about Zen Buddhism, not that I know much. I don’t think, for example, that the word ‘koan’ is ever defined but there are enough examples of koans throughout the book that it’s not hard to see what they’re all about and a whole chapter is devoted to Hakuin’s most famous koan—perhaps the world’s most famous koan—the sound of one hand clapping. I didn’t get it. I don’t need to get it. I got the idea of it. I think if there’d been footnotes, a glossary or an appendix this might’ve changed my experience of the book. I might have felt I was reading a textbook rather than a novel. If I wanted to study the teachings of Hakuin I’d dig out copies of his own books.

hakuin2Some people have no sense of smell. I have no sense of spirituality. You would think I would hate a book like this but I really didn’t. It was a story, a work of historical fiction. It was made up. Much of it is based on recorded fact but who knows what the man was really like, any more than we know what Jesus was like. The ‘story’ of the life of Jesus is a good read. You don’t have to believe any of it but as a story it works. And so does Spence’s presentation of the life of Hakuin. His struggle is not with some extant deity—that’s the thing about Buddhism, it’s as much a philosophy as a religion—but with himself. Most religions impel an individual to kowtow to the will of some higher being and although there are gods mentioned along the way in this book they don’t have the prominence one might expect mighty gods to have. The struggle here is with the self and even the most irreligious amongst us have that to struggle with on a daily basis. Here’s as good as example as any from the book:

I had gone into the market one day with one of the young monks, Taku. He had asked with great earnestness about the aphorism Your everyday mind is the way. He found it difficult to understand, and I thought down there among the sights and sounds and smells of the marketplace he might catch a glimpse.

We stopped at the stall to buy vegetables—I picked out a few radishes and leeks and the girl placed them in a sack Taku had brought with him. Everything on the stall was laid out just so, the fruits and vegetables piled high. Right in the centre was a basket of persimmons, perfect and ripe. I could smell their sweetness. I told Taku to choose one and he asked the girl which was best.

She bowed to him and smiled.

They are all the best, she said.

I laughed and slapped Taku on the back.

You see, Taku, I said. This young woman has a deep understanding of Zen.

Do you get it? I don’t get it but then I don’t need to get it. I’m content to stand at a distance and watch poor Taku go red with embarrassment.

What is particularly remarkable is Spence’s evocation of 17th and 18th century Japan. Had this been handed to me with the author’s name redacted there’s no way I would’ve credited this book to a westerner. Well, there were a couple of expressions that might’ve made me wonder but I’d have probably laid them at the door of the translator.

This book won’t be for everyone but don’t prejudge it either. Good writing is good writing. It really doesn’t matter what the subject matter is.


Spence, Alan 2Alan Spence is Professor in Creative Writing at the University of Aberdeen, where he is also artistic director of the annual WORD Festival. He was born in Glasgow in 1947, and much of his work is set in the city. He was recently commissioned by Scottish Opera for words for a libretto Zen Story, with music by Miriama Young. His first work was the collection of short stories Its Colours They Are Fine, published in 1977. This was followed by two plays, Sailmaker in 1982 and Space Invaders in 1983. The novel The Magic Flute appeared in 1990. In 1991 his play, Changed Days, was published before a brief hiatus. He returned in 1996 with Stone Garden, another collection of short stories. Since then he has published the novels Way To Go (1998) and The Pure Land (2006), a historical novel set in Japan based on the life of Thomas Blake Glover as immortalised in the story of Madame Butterfly.

His first poetry collection, Plop!, was published in 1970 and has since written several more collections, such as Glasgow Zen in 1981 and most recently Morning Glory (with illustrations by Elizabeth Blackadder) in 2010. He is considered to be the leading Scottish haiku writer, with collections including Seasons of the Heart and Clear Light.

He has won a Scottish Arts Council Book award three times, was the SAC Scottish Writer of the Year in 1995, and in 2006 won the Glenfiddich Spirit of Scotland (Writing) Award in 2006. Alan Spence now lives in Edinburgh with his wife, where they run the Sri Chinmoy Meditation Centre.

Sunday 15 September 2013

The Island of Whispers

Island of Whispers

For centuries … the rocky, whale-shaped islet was known to people on both sides of the Forth as Plague Island: a place to be avoided, a place of ghosts and demons and eerie, whispering winds. – Brendan Gisby, The Island of Whispers

Just as any new book involving a teenager inevitably gets lumbered with the epithet ‘Catcher in the Rye for the MTV/YouTube/Twitter generation’ the same goes for any book that revolves around anthropomorphic animals. It ends up being ‘Watership Down with mice or cats or, as in the case of Brendan Gisby’s novel The Island of Whispers, rats’. This doesn’t do the book any favours because Watership Down is a classic, has never been out of print since it was first published in 1972 and is, quite simply, a hard act to follow. It really is setting a book up to fail and many (not that there have been that many), like Aeron Clements’s The Cold Moons (Watership Down with badgers), have suffered because of the comparison. And we do like to compare things.

To be fair one shouldn’t feel especially guilty about comparing The Island of Whispers with Watership Down because, as Brendan writes:

I began to write the book shortly after attending the centenary celebrations of the Forth Bridge in 1990, when I had some time on my hands. I wanted to produce something which could be compared with Watership Down, but which would be set in my own territory.


It would employ the same basic ingredients: an oppressive animal society, a few courageous individuals willing to risk all to escape the oppression, the escape itself followed by a chase, and the happy ending of a new society being forged. But it would be an adventure story, pure and simple; nothing more, nothing deeper. And it would not be anything that purported to rival Watership Down.


The Forth Bridge celebration © Gordon Stacks, October 1990

His ‘own territory’ is the Firth of Forth which is not, as one Goodreads reviewer thought, in the north of England; we Scots are a bit sensitive about stuff like that. The $64,000 question is: Does The Island of Whispers hold its own? Let’s compare it with three others:

Watership Down (1972) follows the lives of a group of rabbits as they leave their endangered warren in search of a safe new home. They travel across the English countryside, braving perilous danger, until they find a hill called Watership Down, where they begin a new warren. However, they are endangered by another warren, Efrafa, which is led by the authoritarian General Woundwort, and they are soon forced to defend their home and lives.

The Animals of Farthing Wood (1979) begins in the fictional Farthing Wood, which is being destroyed to make way for the building of human homes. The book follows the adventures of a group of animals who choose to leave their home in Farthing Wood and journey to White Deer Park, a fictional nature reserve.

The Cold Moons (1989) is a tale of the badgers of Cilgwyn who are faced with a choice of staying in the valley they have inhabited for a generations or embarking on a journey to find their Watership Down which is called Elysia. Some make it, some don't.

The Island of Whispers (2009) is set on a small island in the Firth of Forth. The only inhabitants are a colony of rats and their society is a totalitarian one. Seeing things for what they truly are a young rat decides to arrange for a small party to escape to the mainland and search for a new home where they can start afresh. An abandoned quarry turns out to be where they feel safe enough to establish their new society.

See a bit of a pattern there? There’s much of a muchness about all these books. They’re all basically The Incredible Journey: animals face a predicament (usually because of something Man’s done or intends to do) and have to take a dangerous and arduous journey in order to reach safety. That said Shelia Burnford chose not to anthropomorphise her animals (unlike Disney’s decision in 1993 remake, probably trying to cash in on the ‘success’ of the Look Who's Talking franchise). In the classic quest narrative structure the hero normally aims to obtain something or someone and then return home with this object intact. Often enough though they choose not to return or there’s nothing to left return to as is the case in the five books listed above. The original Duncton Wood (that would be Watership Down with moles) is a little different in that it’s actually a love story at its core although the sequel Duncton Quest was … well the title says it all.

Derivative isn’t necessarily bad. Often, to be fair, it is and some books are harder acts to follow than others. The trick is usually to put a spin on the original (e.g. West Side Story is basically Romeo and Juliet with songs and Warm Bodies is Romeo and Juliet with zombies); simply replacing rabbits with guineafowl isn’t necessarily going to cut it, though. Here’s the setting for Brendan’s book:

The rocky, whale-shaped islet which lies in the shadow of the Forth Railway Bridge is called Inchgarvie. Nowadays, the only creatures which live on the island are the seabirds on its eastern side and the huge colony of rats deep below the crumbling monastery on its western side. The colony has evolved over hundreds of years. Originally consisting of native black rats, it was conquered by much larger brown rats from a passing foreign ship. The native rats, or Scavengers, were enslaved. Over time, careful interbreeding produced a race of strong, black-furred warriors to protect, feed and keep watch for the brown rats. Thus evolved the colony’s present society: the Inner Circle of Rulers and the Outer Circle of Protectors, Hunters and Watchers. Presiding over the society is its ancient Chamberlain, Long Snout. – taken from a long synopsis which you can find here but only read it if you don’t mind spoilers

1984In many respects what we have here is a dystopian setting. The island is a microcosm. It is uninhabited by men—specifically religious men (bear in mind that in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four there is no religion bar Big Brother)—and there’s also evidence of a great war sometime in the past—a concrete gun emplacement also lies neglected.

The rats although they have the run of the island are a particularly insular bunch and most never venture outside their lair:

‘Comrades of the Dark World! The society created by our forefathers has endured many hardships through many generations. Yet it has survived—and it has prospered. It has survived because we are a disciplined society and because we are ever-vigilant. Yes, discipline and vigilance: these are the rules which govern our every way.

This is the Chamberlain addressing an Assembly of rats. He continues:

‘Comrades, our secret world remains hidden from the marauding Two-Legs because our lives are disciplined. Our presence on the world above is controlled carefully, kept to only a few Hunters and slaves each time—and always when darkness covers the land. Our time here in the underworld is spent in comfort. We do not allow our numbers to overrun the lairs. Unlike the Scavengers, who couple incessantly, we mate only during the Cold Cycle. The Selection also rids us of the weak and useless among our broods, keeping our society strong and able.

‘In the same way,’ continued Long Snout, ‘our sources of food are managed carefully.’

This is not so dissimilar to:

His sexual life, for example, was entirely regulated by the two Newspeak words sexcrime (sexual immorality) and goodsex (chastity). Sexcrime covered all sexual misdeeds whatever. It covered fornication, adultery, homosexuality, and other perversions, and, in addition, normal intercourse practised for its own sake.


He knew what was meant by goodsex—that is to say, normal intercourse between man and wife, for the sole purpose of begetting children, and without physical pleasure on the part of the woman: all else was sexcrime. – George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four

Orwell’s society also has issues with food: The Inner Party gets luxury goods—coffee, real sugar, jam—Outer Party members and the proles struggle through various shortages. It’s the same with the rats: the brown rats get to eat gulls, the rest… well, I’ll let the Chamberlain tell you:

‘Warriors of the Outer Circle!’ cried Long Snout. ‘Your source of food is also plentiful and controlled with care. The Scavengers are the slaves of our society. They carry for us and dig for us. They are also your sustenance. We allow them to breed freely and to infest their lair. They devour each other to still their hunger. But those who survive are strong and well-fed, their flesh well able to satisfy your own appetites.

Cannibalism is, of course, a common trope in dystopian science fiction most famously Soylent Green.

In an e-mail Brendan told me:

I needed to give my rat colony a history and a structure. My research, for what it was worth, revealed that black rats were indigenous and quite small and that brown rats probably originated elsewhere in Europe and were much bigger. Both types could have reached the island from passing ships. I had it that the brown rats subjugated and enslaved the black rats and then mated with them to produce a half-breed race loyal to their brown masters. Whether such mating could ever occur in reality didn't really matter, because the story was a fantasy. The same applied to the island's ecosystem … and to things like the life-cycle of a rat. What mattered to me was the story itself and the characters within it.

I planned out the structure of the society very carefully. If the structure was influenced by Nineteen Eighty-Four, it must have been subconsciously, because I don't remember thinking about that book at all—or about Animal Farm for that matter. Again, readers and reviewers have made those comparisons—not the author!

wd_cdcoverThe Chamberlain is not the leader of the rats. That is White Muzzle, the King-rat, who we hear little of and nothing from—in that respect he is most like Big Brother, seen but not heard. Long Snout is more like O’Brien. Our Winston (or our Hazel if you’re still looking for connections to Watership Down) is Twisted Foot, named after a deformity that was overlooked during a cull allowing him time to prove his worth as a Watcher. There is no Julia. There are does of course (although they refer to them as she-rats) but they have little presence in the book and Brendan’s only defence there is that if he were writing the book now he would be less chauvinistic. The only significant event involving a female is the multiple rape of Grey Eyes. It’s not graphically described but a rape is a rape and this was one of the criticisms levelled against Watership Down when it first came out: these were not cute, fluffy bunnies:

"I'll kill him," gasped a low, choking voice behind them. They all leaped round. Bigwig had raised his head and was supporting himself on his forepaws alone. His body was twisted and his hind parts and back legs still lay along the ground. His eyes were open, but his face was such a fearful mask of blood, foam, vomit and earth that he looked more like some demon creature than a rabbit. The immediate sight of him, which should have filled them with relief and joy, brought only terror. They cringed away and none said a word. – Richard Adams, Watership Down

The Duncton Wood novels also have a similar reputation for springing gore and unpleasantness on the reader:

The first that came to him he hardly seemed to touch, yet down he fell, not only dead but torn to death; the second died of a talon thrust so powerful that it seemed to start at his snout and end at his tail; the third turned to run even before he attacked, but too late. A mighty lunge from Mandrake caught him too, and he lay screaming, his black fur savaged open, red blood glistening. And as Mandrake passed by, he coldly crashed his snout and left him there arced out in a bloody, searing, ruthless death. Then they backed before him this way and that, chattering in fear, running away, taking to surface routes in their fright. – William Horwood, Duncton Wood

Well, rats never had the best of standings to begin with—although they’re not always presented as evil creatures (e.g. Roland Rat and Remy from Ratatouille)—and so what would we expect them to behave like? This is a violent world. There is no legal system. There is no religious order. This a single-party state and there is only the party line. Those who don’t toe it pay:

The scenes were blurred, frightening: Long Snout towering over the clearing, the blood of newly born young congealed on his enormous fangs; Neck-Snapper hissing and spitting death, green pus festering in his ragged eyehole; Grey Eyes surrounded by snarling Protectors, her small body lacerated and bleeding. The images of light and darkness vied with each other, struggling for dominance, like a battle between good and evil. – Brendan Gisby, The Island of Whispers

In the beginning of chapter seven of Nineteen Eighty-Four, we learn that the proles make up 85% of the population of Oceania, and according to Winston, if they could only be made aware of their power, they could overthrow the party. In pre-revolutionary France the Third Estates encompassed 97% of the population and in Russia before the Revolution the Peasants accounted for about 95%. If the party controls the weapons—be they guns or teeth, claws and a bad attitude—and the stream of information it should be no problem controlling the masses. Much the same is true of the Scavengers in The Island of Whispers—although the difference isn’t as profound—only in some respects it’s even worse for them because they’re segregated from the rest of the rats and kept oblivious to what’s going on. They’ve been imprisoned for so long they don’t even realise there is another world topside.

Dreams feature is all three books. Winston Smith dreams of the Golden Country, a pastoral setting, a sort of paradise. A young woman strips. Her actions indicate she has cast the Party’s control aside. This is likely a twofold imagine. It’s probably a place he remembers from his childhood but it may also foreshadow the defeat of the Party, meeting and falling in love with Julia, and the clothes are the Party restrictions they cast aside.

In Watership Down Fiver has a dream which he relates to Hazel:

"Oh, Hazel! I was dreaming. It was dreadful. You were there. We were sitting on water, going down a great, deep stream, and then I realized we were on a board--like that board in the field--all white and covered with black lines. There were other rabbits there--bucks and does. But when I looked down, I saw the board was all made of bones and wire; and I screamed and you said, 'Swim--everybody swim'; and then I was looking for you everywhere and trying to drag you out of a hole in the bank. I found you, but you said, 'The Chief Rabbit must go alone,' and you floated away down a dark tunnel of water."

"Well, you've hurt my ribs, anyway. Tunnel of water indeed! What rubbish! Can we go back to sleep now?"

"Hazel--the danger, the bad thing. It hasn't gone away. It's here--all round us. Don't tell me to forget about it and go to sleep. We've got to go away before it's too late."

In The Island of Whispers Twisted Foot also has dreams:

The dreams kept waking Twisted Foot. At first, there were bright, sharp images of a clearing among the trees. He didn’t know where the clearing was, only that it was far away, deep in the woodlands. The sun was shining. They were basking in its warmth. Grey Eyes was there; and young Soft-Mover, his jet-black coat glistening as he moved through the tall grass. Fat One was dozing under a tree. His other companions were in the clearing with their mates and young ones. There was an aura about the place, a deep glow of happiness. It seemed that if he reached out from his dream he could touch the glow, let the warmth course through him.

The nudge to consider escape as an option comes—as with Hazel—from a third party, in this case Long Ears who realises he’s not a natural leader—“I am too weak, too afraid”—but he can see that Twisted Foot has the necessary cunning, courage and intelligence and, especially after learning of the rape of his mate, the incentive. The question is: Will they succeed and if so at what cost?

The dreams are the only thing here that could be considered a fantasy element but since they were preceded by Long Ears’s proposal I’m happy to take them as tailchasersimply dreams and not read into them unlike the prophetic dreams in Watership Down or Fire Bringer (Watership Down with deer). I found the lack of a belief system a little harder to accept—religion has always proven a most effective way of keeping folk (especially simple folk) in their place. If the sun suddenly became a sun god (as Frith is to the rabbits) and there was always the threat of being burned alive wouldn’t that prove an excellent deterrent and keep the rats in their place? There’s also no mythology attached to Man. In Tailchaser’s Song (Watership Down with cats) the cats view "M'an" as a race of deformed descendants of cats which I thought was an interesting notion. Again, as with everything else, the rats show little imagination: the Two-Legs are what the Two-Legs do and no one seems at all interested in their motives.

Books like Watership Down and Duncton Wood stand apart from fantasy works like Redwall (where the mice fight with swords) in that they aim to be as realistic as possible when presenting the characteristics and behavioural patterns of the animals in question and both of these books succeed in that respect. Adams's descriptions of wild rabbit behaviour were based on The Private Life of the Rabbit (1964), by British naturalist Ronald Lockley. Horwood has also been commended for his research. Brendan has clearly done some research but decided not to stick rigorously to the facts—e.g. rats in the wild rarely survive more than a year to eighteen months so what would ‘old’ be to a rat?—and treats the rats, in some respects, like little humans. Which works—it’s not a flaw; it’s a creative decision and most readers won’t think twice about it.

Brendan’s goal was to write “an adventure story, pure and simple; nothing more, nothing deeper” and he has achieved that. If that’s all you’re looking for in a book then buy a copy of this right away; you will not be disappointed. I, however, was disappointed because there was the potential here for more. He completed the first three parts quite quickly, but had to stop at that point because of business commitments and it was not until 2009, almost twenty years later, that he picked up the manuscript again and completed the final two parts. Here was an opportunity to reach for the stars and one that was missed. Part of me understands because when I came to edit my first two novels ten years after they were first written I chose to keep them as a record of the man I was then rather than try to make them into something else so it would be hypocritical to make too much of the fact Brendan’s novel falls short of some imaginary mark. It has exceeded his goal anyway. It’s not simple “an adventure story”. It’s thought-provoking and certainly a good book for teenagers who might balk at reading most of the other books mentioned above for various different reasons. That said the title is not exciting nor is the current cover. An earlier version sported a rat on the cover and I thought that was better; the current cover looks more like a travel guide.

You can read four excerpts from the book online:

It’s available both as an ebook and as a paperback.

Sunday 8 September 2013

Let the Games Begin


There was no plan B. And plan A leaked water all over the place. – Niccolò Ammaniti, Let the Games Begin

For a very Italian novel—l'Unità said that “Let the Games Begin may well be the print version of La Dolce Vita set today”—there was something, for me, oddly British about this book; we readers do bring our own baggage. I grew up with the term ‘French farce’ but look up ‘farce’ in Wikipedia and you’ll actually find more British farces listed than French and those are the ones I remember. Let the Games Begin is an Italian farce—I’ll have more to say about that in a minute—but it reminded me of so many British sitcoms and sex comedies from the sixties and seventies. Wikipedia defines a farce as follows:

In theatre, a farce is a comedy that aims at entertaining the audience through situations that are highly exaggerated, extravagant, and thus improbable. Farces are often highly incomprehensible plot-wise (due to the large number of plot twists and random events that often occur), but viewers are encouraged not to try to follow the plot in order to avoid becoming confused and overwhelmed. Farce is also characterized by physical humour, the use of deliberate absurdity or nonsense, and broadly stylized performances. […] Furthermore, a farce is also often set in one particular location, where all events occur.

That pretty much defines this book, what’s good about it and what’s bad. The blurb on the back of the book states quite plainly:


Italian editionI actually missed the hippos but I did catch the elephants, the tigers, the foxes, gnus, horses, zebra, giraffes, gazelles, camels, African wild dogs, crocodiles—they definitely ate someone—and herds of buffalo. So maybe I can be forgiven; there was a lot going on.

As is so common in sitcoms we have two interweaving narrative threads and my first thought after reading the opening two chapters was: How the hell is he going to tie these two together? But Brautigan handled it brilliantly in Willard and his Bowling Trophies and Ammaniti manages it here and with aplomb. As soon as I read there was going to be a party I realised this was going to be the cauldron in which everyone’s goose would eventually be cooked. (No, there are no geese in the book but there is a headless chicken as well as numerous chicken dishes.)

In a sitcom one of the stories is usually the subplot but really these two stories stand on an equal footing. The first concerns Mantos, Murder, Zombie and Silvietta, otherwise known as the Wilde Beasts of Abaddon. If Jimmy Perry and David Croft had decided to write a show about a hapless Satanic cult they could’ve done worse that choosing these four. When we’re first introduced to them—holding a meeting in a local pizzeria—this is how they’re described:

Mantos (a.k.a. Saverio Moneta) was “[s]kinny, five-foot six, with metal-framed glasses, he wore his hair parted on the left. He was wearing a short-sleeved, light blue shirt buttoned right up to the throat, dark blue cords and a pair of slip-on moccasins.” Saverio, when he wasn’t being Mantos, was the department manager of the Furniture Store of the Master of the Axe. He works for his tyrannical father-in-law.

Murder (a.k.a. Roberto Morsillo) was “[a] chubby guy almost six foot six, with long dyed-black hair and glasses covered in oily fingerprints. He wore a stretched Slayer t-shirt. Originally from Sutri, he was studying Law at Rome University and worked at the Brico DIY centre in Vetralla.”

Silvietta (a.k.a. Silvia Butti) was “the group’s Vestal. A scrawny redhead with bug-eyes sticking out beneath thin eyebrows that sat too high on her forehead. She wore a silver ring in one nostril and another in the middle of her lip.” She and Murder had been dating when Mantos suggested sacrificing her to Satan. The veracity of her virginity was questionable—despite the fact Murder swore they’d done everything bar having sex—but in the end the group decided that “the purity of the victim was not a substantial problem.”

Zombie (a.k.a. Edoardo Sambreddero) was “a haggard-looking guy, who suffered from congenital esophagitis: couldn’t swallow garlic, chocolate or fizzy drinks. He worked for his father assembling electrical systems in Manziana.” He and Murder are best friends. He’s also secretly in love with Silvietta.

The meeting has been arranged because, well, they’re really not much of Satanic cult. And they know it. Zombie cuts to the chase:

        ‘Technically,’ he said, ‘we, as a sect, don’t exist.’
        Saverio has guessed what he was up to, but pretended not to understand.
         ‘What do you mean?’
         ‘How long’s it been since we took the bloody oath?’
        Saverio shrugged his shoulders. ‘It’s been a few years.’
         ‘They never talk about us online. But they talk plenty about the Children of the Apocalypse,’ whispered Silvietta so softly that nobody heard her.
        Zombie pointed a grissino at his chief. ‘In all this time, what have we accomplished?’
         ‘All those things that you promised … How many of them have we done?’ Murder chimed in. ‘You said we’d make loads of human sacrifices, but we haven’t seen hide nor hair of them. And what about the initiation ritual with the virgins? And the Satanic orgies?’

French editionTo be fair they had tried to sacrifice Silvietta the year before but that clearly hadn’t worked out despite the fact they buried her alive. But at least they’d tried. And that had bought Saverio time but now his time is up. He has to come up with something awesome to rally the troops. But what? He asks for a week to come up with something worthy but the bottom line is he hasn’t a clue.

The second storyline couldn’t be more different. About fifty kilometres from the pizzeria we’re introduced to the novelist Fabrizio Ciba. He’s rich and famous but his reputation rests mainly on one book, a one hundred and twenty page novella entitled The Lion’s Den:

Fabrizio Ciba was forty-one years old, but everyone thought of him as [a] younger writer. That adjective, frequently repeated by the newspapers and other media, had a psychosomatic effect on his body. Fabrizio didn’t look any older than thirty-five. He was slim and toned without going to the gym. He got drunk every evening, but his stomach was still as flat as a table.

It’s been five years since The Lion’s Den and no one has had anything much to say about his follow-up, Nestor’s Dream. He’s been living off both the profits and the goodwill generated from The Lion’s Den for long enough and desperately needs something to make the critics sit up:

Fabrizio knew he was capable of writing THE GREAT NOVEL. What’s more, THE GREAT ITALIAN NOVEL, like I promessi sposi to be exact, the book critics said was missing in our contemporary literature. And after various attempts, he had begun working on a Saga about a Sardinian family, from the seventeenth century until the present day. An ambitious project that was definitely much stronger than Gattopardo or I Viceré.

Needless to say he is also at an impasse; in that respect he’s a total cliché: the blocked writer.

In an October 2009 interview in Corriere della Sera, Ammaniti, who won international acclaim for his novel I’m Not Scared, explained that most of his approach to Ciba was “teasing, playing with stereotypes … [Ciba] represents a little Mr. Hyde in me.” – Charlotte Bhaskar, ‘The Dark Denizens of a Debauched Rome: Niccolo Ammaniti’s Let the Games Begin, Zyzzyva, 17 July 2013

So much like the Wilde Beasts of Abaddon he’s looking for something to kick start his future. As it happens it’s a party, a party that promises to be the most lavish OTT party that Rome has ever seen, since at least Caligula anyway. His host has converted the grandest public park in Rome, Villa Ada, into his personal safari range and the party promises to deliver debauchery of every sort—feasting (the twelve-decker Club Sandwich Ambassador Grand Royal stuffed full with sixty-five different ingredients says it all), fornicating (not part of the official schedule but far from frowned upon) and hunting (foxes, lions, and an admittedly ailing albino Bengal tiger so think of it as a mercy-killing). Fabrizio, of course, is going as an honoured guest although to be fair there are so many honoured guests he’s unlikely to stand out and for a while is actually in two minds whether or not to go —people have been talking about this party for a year—whereas the Beasts are going to have to wangle their way in among the catering staff in order to exact the plan their leader will hatch in chapter 11.

That plan has nothing to do with Fabrizio Ciba. They have no idea who he is. They’re not big readers.

Farce, of course, is not simply the province of the French and the British but when you think about Italian theatre, what’s the first thing that jumps to mind? The commedia dell'arte! Although it’s hard to establish a clear thread some suggest a connection between the commedia dell'arte and the Atellan Farces which were a collection of vulgar farces, containing lots of low or buffoonish comedy and rude jokes. It was very popular in Ancient Rome.

The commedia dell'arte is a form of theatre characterized by masked "types" which began in Italy in the 16th century and was responsible for the advent of the actress and improvised performances based on sketches or scenarios.


The characters of the commedia usually represent fixed social types, stock characters, such as foolish old men, devious servants, or military officers full of false bravado. Characters such as Pantalone, the miserly Venetian merchant; Dottore Gratiano, the pedant from Bologna; or Arlecchino, the mischievous servant from Bergamo, began as satires on Italian "types" and became the archetypes of many of the favourite characters of 17th- and 18th-century European theatre. – Wikipedia

Ciba, the blocked writer, is far from being the only stereotype in this book. They’re crawling out of the woodwork.

produkt-8542Satire and farce don’t tend to mix well—farce tends towards the lowbrow (slapstick, fart jokes and gross-out humour), satire is generally more intellectual employing techniques like irony, parody and sarcasm—but I think Let the Games Begin manages to combine the two as well as could ever be done. The party around which the majority of the action in this book takes place isn’t a masque in the traditional sense but this is high society and everyone wears a mask. The Beasts wear their own masks. Most of their days they’re indistinguishable from the rest of us. That underneath their ordinariness there lie bumbling servants of the Devil is neither here nor there. Who’s to say what lies underneath Fabrizio Ciba’s mask or that of his host, the megalomaniacal property tycoon Sasà Chiatti, or the singer Larita (a.k.a. Elsa Martelli) who Fabrizio falls for and who, we learn, is to be the Beasts’ target? Why her? She was once a death metal diva, the lead singer of Lord of the Flies, and as such something of a poster child to the Beasts, but as she’d recently abandoned her roots, converted to Catholicism and reinvented herself as a pop princess putting her name to such albums as Live in Saint Peter and Unplugged in Lourdes, she was now hated by all Satanists and fair game. Once the Beasts learn she’d going to be attending the party it’s obvious what needs to be done. Just as well DHL had just delivered a replica of the Durendal, a “faithful reproduction of the sword of Roland, Charlemagne’s paladin”. That would do the job nicely. All I want to say at this point is: Watch what you buy on eBay.

There are too many characters in this book for every one of them to be fleshed out but the main ones are and here’s the thing: rather than develop an affinity for the writer—bit o’ solidarity there Murdoch—I actually started to find I’d more time for the Satanists. You see once you scrape away the grease paint the Beasts are actually quite a decent bunch of people who simply haven’t grown up whereas most of the guests aren’t, not deep down and most aren’t that deep. It’s what worked so well with The Addams Family. When push comes to shove Mantos does the decent thing and Fabrizio lets the side down—twice in fact.

This is an impossible book to try and summarise. It’s not even that long—328 pages—but an awful lot happens in them some of which is actually quite awful and we wonder why we’re laughing. It really is organised chaos, so much so that you will forgive me for forgetting what happened with the pod of hippos. I was probably too upset about the elephant and the tiger hunt. Seriously this is the party to end all parties. Nothing Gatsby ever threw could come close to the extravagance of this thing. The book is apparently (in part at least) a criticism of the vanities of the Berlusconi era. The newspapers describe his soirees as “bunga bunga parties”; he (at least publicly) preferred to call them “elegant dinners”. In June of this year things came to a head:

220px-Silvio_Berlusconi_(2010)A Milan court sentenced Berlusconi on Monday to seven years in jail and banned him from public office after convicting him of paying for sex with a minor and of abuse of office. He will remain free pending the outcome of his appeals, expected to take several years to resolve.

Prosecutors have presented evidence describing unbridled scenes involving young women stripping and performing raunchy dances at Berlusconi's parties and being rewarded with envelopes stuffed with thousands of euros in cash. – Reuters, 28 June 2013

As I know even less about Italian politics than I know about British politics—that would be nothing compared to next-to-nothing—I can only relay what other reviewers have said.

In the midst of all the pandemonium that ensues—especially after Zombie cuts the electricity—and all semblance of civility goes out of the window—the Lord of the Flies reference is there for a reason—what we end up with is a face-off (of sorts—I can’t really go into the details) between two contrasting-and-yet-at-the-same-time-quite-similar characters: Mantos is married, henpecked (although that’s putting it mildly) by his wife, bullied by her father, struggling financially and unbearably ordinary; Fabrizio is single, successful with women, rich and very much the golden boy of Italian literature: the masks are off. Both want to escape from something in their lives which, interestingly enough, they both wind up doing and it’s all because of this party. They’re not really doppelgängers but there is a connection: there but for the grace of … God or the Devil—take your pick.

The book has its faults. Some of the descriptions are a bit heavy-handed and the short chapters mean you’re continually flipping from one storyline to the next and back. It all adds to the general feeling of disorientation though. Remember what Wikipedia said about a farce—“viewers are encouraged not to try to follow the plot in order to avoid becoming confused and overwhelmed”—well the same goes for readers here and, yet, to be fair, I picked up on all major plot points throughout the reading; it was really the background clutter that went out of focus from time to time which is how I managed to miss the hippos. The book’s funny, although you really need a dark sense of humour to appreciate much of it, and it’s tragic, too; in fact tragedy wins out at the end despite the happyish ending. It’s not a book I would’ve bought and since I was hoping for something more like Me and You—which I read recently and enjoyed—I was a bit disappointed by this one but that’s not the author’s fault. I much preferred Peter Sellers in Being There to Peter Sellers in The Party: horses for courses.

Oh, I forgot about the Olympic Athletes. Did you know that the Olympics were held in Rome in 1960? Well, apparently not all the Russians made it home and you don’t want to know where they were living.


Ammaniti,_NiccoloNiccolò Ammaniti was born in Rome in 1966. He has written two collections of short stories and six novels, four of which have been translated into English. His second novel, Steal You Away, was long listed for The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. He was the youngest ever winner of the Italian Viareggio Literary Prize for Fiction for his best-selling novel I'm Not Scared, which has been translated into thirty-five languages. As God Commands received the prestigious Premio Strega Prize in 2007, and his novel Me and You (which I review here) was made into a feature film by Bernardo Bertolucci.

The translator, Kylee Doust, studied Italian literature and linguistics at La Trobe University, Melbourne. She has lived in Italy since 1998.

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