After a hiatus, I started reading madly in November, fueled by a series of recommendations. Sometime in the last week I read a sentence which sticks to my mind: maybe there are only a few plots, but there are many stories to tell. Of the books that I read in November, the ones that stand out seem to have the same theme but tell three completely different stories.
Being alone doesn’t mean you have to be miserableYoko Ogawa
I’d picked up Yoko Ogawa’s book, called The Memory Police in a translation by Stephen Snyder, when it was published two years ago, during a meeting, but I drifted away before getting more than a few pages into it. Now I read it in a sustained burst. It was called 密やかな結晶 (Hisoyaka na Kesshō) in the original Japanese, meaning Graceful/secret/soft crystallization. The beautiful but claustrophobic story is a reworking of Anne Frank in an imaginary island. The Memory Police enforces forgetting on its population: stamps, roses, birds, perfumes. The few people who don’t forget are rounded up and “disappeared”. In this setting a novelist hides her editor, a man who does not forget in a little secret space she builds in her house. You cannot help reading it as an allegory of what some have called a wave of fascism around the world. But, like Anne Frank’s diary, the power of this novel comes from more than its circumstances. As the islanders’ memories dissolve, it is interesting to think about the story in terms of its Japanese title.
I went through school with a lot of irony.Michael Ondaatje on being an immigrant in an English school
Warlight by Michael Ondaatje is the first book of his that I have read in a long time. The narrator in a young man who seems to be trying to reconstructing his memories of growing up in London after the war when his parents left him and his sister in the care of people who seem to be a little dodgy. The term warlight refers to the chiaroscuro of wartime blackouts: small things seen in clear light, the larger things obscure. The result is a sharp description of a boy’s teenage years, growing up on the margins of criminality, the danger of violence, the discovery of sex and love, but with the larger story coming into dim view only later. It is a beautiful book, and would have been so even without the twist that the Booker committee likes to have in its longlist selection.
Don’t write about fairies. They don’t like it.Susanna Clarke on the long hiatus between her books
Sixteen years passed between the publication of Susanna Clarke’s first two books. I had my eyes on Piranesi for a while, but came to it immediately after I saw several etchings of imaginary prisons made by Giovanni Battista Piranesi after 1745, when he recovered from an illness. Interestingly, Susanna Clarke wrote this story of a man documenting an endless house during an illness. The man exists in a state of innocence, a “Child of the House that is the World”, exploring the halls and vestibules of the middle level of the house. The sea fills the lower levels and tides come and go. The upper level has clouds, and rain water flows down from them. The middle level has birds and enigmatic statues. But this is a book by Clarke, and mysteries soon appear, and eventually other worlds. Interestingly, each person is introduced with a characteristic smell. Clarke is a very clever writer, and you begin to see her concerns again in this book: gender, slavery, modernity, and, as in the other two books, memory and its distortions.