Books: The International List

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Another stark beauty from Ireland’s literary queen, Murakami’s literary debut in English for the first time, a sad and lengthy tale of a band of brothers and Coetzee’s experiments with truth
“I have paid too little attention,” says Rosaleen Madigan, an inconsistent, marvellous wreck of a matriarch, abandoning her eldest daughter Constance to seek refuge with her distant son Emmet, claiming she has been driven out, at the end of a long spiral of domestic clamour. Soon, the brood knows once again that they have been given a different truth; Rosaleen herself admits it, in a way, in this ultimate utterance. It’s the kind of belated awareness which redeems the characters in this pithy western Ireland saga, which spreads acute radials of tender attention to New York, Mali and Toronto; where Rosaleen’s children fly, trying to escape their inescapable mother. Booker prize winner ANNE ENRIGHT reigns supreme in her accustomed territory of the dysfunctional family in THE GREEN ROAD (Jonathan Cape, 320 pages). Within its coils, she inscribes the horror of a New York City decade of gay annihilation at the hands of AIDS and the constant quest of omnisexual Dan, the eldest boy who once wanted to be a priest; the equal challenge of daily domesticity for play-it-safe Constance whose one attempt at an affair was more of a ‘fucking puddle’ than the imagined ‘big leap’; the moral torpor of Africa outreach workers like Emmet, looking to save themselves as much as others; and the dizzy alcoholism of Hanna, failed actress.

At Boolavaun, their large childhood home with a porch full of geraniums, they come together for a last Christmas when Rosaleen decides, impossibly, to sell it. Nearby, across a meadow and by a boreen which gives you a view of the Aran Islands and the Cliffs of Moher, there is also that other fabulous Irish thing: ‘the green road that went across the Burren, high above the beach at Fanore… the most beautiful road in the world’. It is the scene of the soaring crescendo of this drama, when Rosaleen rages off, ‘tired of waiting… all her life, for something that had never happened’, remembering everything: how she married beneath her, how she prevailed, even the 40 years of making love with her husband. The green road is that place we all find in our minds, a dark, glittering terrain that both terrifies us and keeps us safe, the line we hold to even if the story we must tell is not linear, as a result. If this is more novel-in-stories than novel, it is a book with bite, which lasts and persists like all of Enright’s work.

WIND/ PINBALL (Harvill Secker, 336 pages) is a timely reminder of what made HARUKI MURAKAMI a sensation, even if he is green in these first works, two short novels originally published in 1979 and leading up to A Wild Sheep Chase.

It’s all very meta, and reads predictable, a few decades later. Hear the Wind Sing begins with a proclamation made by a writer to the writer narrating this story: ‘There’s no such thing as a perfect piece of writing.’ Derek Hartfield, a fictitious American writer who wrote prolifically yet jumped to a little noticed death off the Empire State Building, is the obsession of the narrator, who tells the simple story of Rat, which spans 18 days in 1970. Rat is a privileged guy who hates the rich, writes books without sex scenes and chats with the Chinese bartender J more intimately than with anyone save the narrator. The surreal aspect of these overlapping single males is exaggerated in Pinball, 1973, the second novel, where characters ramble on about Saturn to the narrator, presumably the same ‘I’, living with identical twins and running a small translation firm. ‘I walked on and on through a boundless silence,’ he tells us, reading The Critique of Pure Reason and drinking superb coffee with the twins, who live to boil their man’s stew and clean his ears. This is male fantasy within writerly fantasy, but it is also farce. The quest to find an extinct pinball machine is the last straw, however. One wishes for more of the sharp observations of Murakami’s non-fiction, evident in his brilliant What I Talk About When I Talk About Running and in the introduction to this book.

There will probably be tears involved in your reading of HANYA YANAGIHARA’s Booker prize- longlisted A LITTLE LIFE (Picador, 720 pages), with its heart-wrenching subject matter; this is a novel which purports to be about a group of friends bound together by a brotherly code and their liberal arts Massachusetts college upbringing, but it is really about brilliant, tormented lawyer Jude and his shocking abuse at the hands of priests, louts and deviants. The litany of torture he inflicts upon himself—he has already suffered a terrible accident which makes it difficult to walk, but he continues to mutilate his body— and which new adult tormentors manage to inflict upon him—including a boyfriend who batters him—is a new level of juddering horror even for today’s cynical audience. He weeps, ‘folding his arms over his head, making his hair tacky with blood’, as he did as a child, ‘exploding, separating from himself like a dying star’ after the truly vile Brother Luke has pimped him out to yet another predator. A character like this doesn’t stand a chance, yet he finds comfort and even love within his circle of friends: architect and confused soul Malcolm, diva and painter JB, and Willem, a handsome, sympathetic actor—even new parents.

I persisted, tried to take the novel’s other themes—the difficulty of making art, brotherhood, a male riff on Mary McCarthy’s 1963 classic The Group— seriously. The crimes against the appropriately named Jude beats literary faith to a pulp, however. Readers cannot demand happiness from a book—even while they may expect to be stimulated and edified— just as authors cannot expect the nobility of a theme to justify a long rendition. But at the end of the tome I wanted my time back, if not my innocence.

When one of our most formidable living authors teams up with a psychotherapist, it is important to listen and learn. THE GOOD STORY: EXCHANGES ON TRUTH, FICTION AND PSYCHOTHERAPY (Harvill Secker, 208 pages) is an unusual venture, co-authored by two-time Booker-prize winner JM COETZEE and University of Leicester senior clinical tutor ARABELLA KURTZ. If some of the ideas seem predictable—how do we form the role of author of our life story, the reinvention of truth by writers— their investigations are edifying, and their conversational form is soothing; much like a session with the two, one would imagine. There are moments of pure inquiry which stand out, as well. ‘What is it that impels you, as a therapist, to want your patient to confront the truth about themselves, as opposed to collaborating or colluding in a story—let us call it a fiction, but an empowering fiction—that would make the patient feel good about themselves, good enough to go out into the world better able to love and work?’ asks Coetzee. Kurtz has thrown the stage open to him, to consider how psychoanalysis is ‘aimed at setting free the narrative or autobiographical imagination’, and he responds at length.

At times, the tone is wry, but mostly it is solemn, as is expected. The two cover lots of bases, literary and psychological, ranging in literary history from Coetzee’s own work to Sebald. This may not be one for everyone, but it is worth dipping into as you read other texts—a genre worth perpetuating.

(A monthly roundup of the best of international publishing)