Search Results for white hunger

White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen

Bleak winterThe severe famine that brought havoc and destruction to nineteenth century rural Ireland has been well documented. Less well known is that more than 250,000 people (about 15% of the population) died when Finland experienced a similarly devastating famine in the late 1860s.

This is the background to Aki Ollikainen’s short, disquieting novel White Hunger. It’s 1867:  a year which saw the culmination of a series of poor harvests and a particularly harsh winter. Marja, a peasant farmer’s wife from the north, abandons her dying husband and sets off on foot through waist-high snow with her two young children Mataleena and Juho. This is a journey born out of desperation.  Their goal is to reach St Petersburg where rumour has it, bread can be found.  Not the stuff made pine bark, lichen and straw that they’ve been living on for months, but bread made with real flour.

The chances are slim that all the members of this little trio will survive. They are entirely dependent on the mercy of isolated households they find along the way.  Marja struggles through a featureless landscape, from one nameless village to another, from farmstead to almshouse to barn. She experiences the kindness of strangers who share their meagre rations and also the brutality of those who have become embittered by the ceaseless trail of beggars that knock on their doors. Denounced at times as a thief and a whore, what drives Marja onwards day after day is not desperation alone but also hope.

… one day, maybe, there will be talk of things other than bread, the lack of it, or hunger and diseases. People would talk about the coming of spring, the melting of the ice. About the swans someone spotted on the Holy Lake. About the neighbouring fields being flooded.

whitehunger_web_0_220_330The details of her journey are broken with scenes from a town where a doctor and a politician live in relative luxury. The doctor tries to shelter from the shock of the human tragedy, only occasionally feeling a sense of guilt; the politician puts his faith in a new railway to solve the problem. Not until the end of the novel does it become clear how these stories intersect.

Aki Ollikainen’s skill in this novella lies in the way he portrays a snow-bound landscape and ravaging hunger without becoming monotonous. Descriptions of the snow abound naturally along with vivid descriptions of the feeling of hunger. In spare and taut prose Ollikainen animates these forces of nature. Hunger becomes   “an angry cat scratching, scraping, sinking its teeth into the pit of her stomach” while frost  “spreads weedlike through the window frames along the timber joints across the wall.”  and snow pushes in through doors “like a cadaver.”

It takes strong nerves to read this book about people brought to the edge of existence. But steel yourself to do so and you won’t be disappointed. Bleak and harsh it certainly is but utterly memorable.

End Notes

Translated from the Finnish by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah, White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen is published by Peirene Press (Peirene title number 16). Aki Ollikainen lives in northern Finland where he works as a reporter on a local newspaper. White Hunger is his debut work, published to great acclaim in his native country where he won multiple awards. He has written a second novel Musta satu but I haven’t been able to find out anything about this so far.

Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth [book review] #Bookerprize

Sacred-HungerIt’s 210 years since an Act of Parliament abolished the slave trade in Britain, a trade upon which many personal fortunes were made; mansions, stately homes and churches built and Britain’s major ports, cities and canals developed. It’s estimated that by the early 1800s as many as one in six of the wealthiest Britons derived at least some of their fortunes from slavery. This is a period of British history which still causes controversy today – earlier this year campaigners vowed to erase the name of Edward Colston from the streets of Bristol because the buildings he bequeathed to the city were funded through his involvement in the slave trade.

The profit motive that propelled merchants and investors like Colston is the theme explored in Sacred Hunger, the 1992 Booker-prize winning novel by Barry Unsworth.  It begins with the ambition of one man, William Kemp, a leading merchant in Liverpool who believes the time is ripe for the city and its entrepreneurs to reap the rewards of trade across the Atlantic and Africa. So confident is he that he has a new ship built to carry firearms to the west coast of Africa, intending to trade them for slaves to be transported and sold in the West Indies in exchange for a cargo of sugar to be taken back to England.

He knows it will be a risky endeavour. So he equips the Liverpool Merchant with special features: guns on its quarterdecks  mounted so they can be trained down to quell slave revolts and thickened rails to make death leaps more difficult.  In his captain Saul Thurso he finds a man who will not hesitate to act in whatever way necessary to maintain order. Yet Kemp likes to think he is also a caring man so he recruits his nephew Matthew Paris as ship’s doctor, “for reasons of humanity”, much to Thurso’s astonishment and disgust.

It’s through the eyes of this doctor that we witness events on board ship once it sets sail. Paris is a complex character. In between binding the wounds of crew members and treating the symptoms of venereal disease and bloody flux (severe dysentery), he spends his time at sea reading Voltaire and Pope. His thoughts turn constantly to his  wife and his feelings of guilt for the part he played in her premature death. His objection to the profit motive, the inhumanity of slavery and the treatment of the human cargo put him at loggerheads with the Captain.

When an artist and philosopher called Deblanc joins the ship in West Africa, Paris finds he has someone with whom he can debate the legitimacy of the profit motive behind the voyage. Deblanc tells Paris how the lust for profit becomes legitimised:

Money is sacred as everyone knows… So then must be the hunger for it and the means we use to obtain it. Once a man is in debt he becomes a flesh and blood form of money, a walking investment. You can do what you like with him, you can work him to death or you can sell him. This cannot be called cruelty or greed because we are seeking only to recover our investment and that is a sacred duty.

Paris becomes increasingly disquiet about his own role in assisting the slave traders:

I have assisted in the suffering inflicted on these innocent people and in doing so joined the ranks of those that degrade the unoffending… We have taken everything from them and only for the sake of profit—that sacred hunger… which justifies everything, sanctifies all purposes.

Thurso decides to jettison the captured slaves, the insurance money being more attractive than their prospects for sale in their sickened condition. It’s the breaking point for Paris who leads a rebellion and forms a settlement off the coast of Florida where crew members and slaves live together on equal terms. They share the few remaining women slaves, communicate via a trade pidgin and trade with local Indians.

A decade later, William Kemp’s son Erasmus learns of this settlement and resolves to recapture the slaves for they are, in his eyes, his property. Book 2 of Sacred Hunger traces his journey across the Atlantic to seek retribution against his cousin, bring him to justice and reclaim the remaining slaves. Like his now-dead father, Erasmus is motivated by money and finds in Florida that the promise of land and wealth is equally compelling to the Governor of this British colony and the local Indian tribal chiefs.

The story moves at a smart pace, especially in the first book. There is a large and colourful cast of characters from the crewmen duped in wharfside brothels into joining the ship to Thurso whose glaring eyes and propensity for flogging make him an imposing figure. Unsworth provides so much detail that we feel we too are pitching and rolling through the waves or clambering up the mainmast. Fortunately the book doesn’t get so authentic that we experience the stink of the slave’s quarters in the bottom of the hull.

 

Sacred Hunger is long at 600 pages but doesn’t feel unnecessarily drawn out. It’s page after page of solid adventure, realistic 18th century dialogue and vivid prose which works without recourse to any experimentation with form. In Book 1 which takes us as far as Thurso’s murder of the slaves, Unsworth varies the tempo by alternating episodes on the Liverpool Merchant  with scenes of a failed romance and a family scandal in Liverpool.

 

Book One was a joy to read but I wasn’t as enthralled by the considerably shorter Book 2. Most of this later section is set in Florida where the hoped for utopia of a settlement of equals is clearly breaking down despite Paris’ attempt to convince the settlers that “White man, black man, all free man, all bradder, lie tagedder dis place, all same boat.” The problem for me was that so much of this section is conveyed in that kind of pidgin language. It’s understandable since it brings home the point about how difficult it is for the English and Africans to communicate but it made for some frustrating reading. Overall though this was still a good read and will find a place in the top half of my favourite Booker titles I’m sure.

 

 

Footnotes

About the book: Sacred Hunger is a historical novel by Barry Unsworth first published in 1992 by Hamish Hamilton. It shared the Booker Prize that year with Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient (one of my all-time favourite Booker winners).

About the author: Barry Unsworth was born in 1930 in a mining village in Durham. After university he served in the Royal Corps of Signals, then became a teacher and novelist. He worked as a lecturer in English at a London technical college and the universities of Athens and Istanbul. He was writer in residence at the University of Liverpool. In later years he made his home in Umbria, Italy. He died in Perugia, at age 81, of lung cancer.

Why I read this book: Sacred Hunger is one of the remaining books on my Booker prize winners project. It’s also part of my 20booksofsummer2017 list.

Six degrees from chocolate to famine

It’s time for another Six Degrees of Separation, a meme where a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. Readers and bloggers are invited to join in by creating their own ‘chain’ leading from the selected book.

This month’s chain begins with a book I have never heard of let alone read. It’s Like Water for Chocolate, a debut work by the Mexican author Laura Esquivel. Apparently the central character grows up to be a master chef, using cooking to express herself and sharing recipes with readers.

The obvious choice for chocolate lovers like myself would be to the best selling novel Chocolat by Joanne Harris. But I think for my first link I’ll use the location where chefs work rather than the ingredients they use.

In 1929, an aspiring author by the name of Eric Blair arrived in Paris. Whether out of necessity because he had his money stolen, or because he wanted to gather material for a book, he began working as a dishwasher in some of the city’s restaurants. The result was  Down and Out in Paris and London, the first full-length work by an author better known as George Orwell.

Paris of course likes to think of itself as the gourmet capital of the world. The recently-published Michelin guide lists 10 restaurants in the city awarded the coveted 3 stars        (remarkably however this achievement is outdone by Tokyo with twelve 3-star restaurants).  Gourmet restaurants attract gourmands which gives me my next book in the chain.

The GourmetThe Gourmet by Muriel Barbery features Pierre Arthens, the greatest food critic in France. In the final two days of his life he wants to track down the most delicious food he has ever eaten. It’s a flavour he recalls from the years before he was critic though he is not exactly sure if it came from his childhood or his adolescent years. As he digs into his memory, he remembers all the dishes he has relished over the years, like this ” Pan roasted breast of Peking duck rubbed with berbère; grapefruit crumble à la Jamaïque with shallot confit … ”

Before I stopped eating meat I was quite partial to duck though I don’t find the combination of fowl and grapefruit very appealing. But then I’m not a gourmand.

The Sea, The SeaAll those descriptions of food do however remind me of another character who thinks he has a refined palette. So for my next link let’s leave France behind and move to the English coast to catch up with Charles Arrowby, the central character in Iris Murdoch’s Booker-prize winning novel The Sea, The Sea. Charles, who considers he has had a highly successful career as a London stage director, retires to a bit of a tumbledown seaside cottage to write his memoirs. In between writing and swimming, he prepares his own meals, some of which sound frankly bizarre.

For lunch, I may say, I ate and greatly enjoyed the following: anchovy paste on hot buttered toast, then baked beans and kidney beans with chopped celery, tomatoes, lemon juice and olive oil. (Really good olive oil i essential, the kind with a taste, I have brought a supply from London)

I could manage the anchovy paste on toast quite easily but baked beans and kidney beans on the same plate would be a step too far. I’m beginning to think duck and grapefruit wouldn’t be so bad after all….

Charles thinks he is irresistable to women but the protagonist in the novel for my next link would certainly not be one happy to share his lunch table and it’s nothing to do with his after shave.

AtwoodMarian McAlpin, the protagonist of The Edible Woman, by Margaret Atwood, has a problem with food. Meat revolts her but so do eggs, carrots and even rice puddings. Soon she is existing on little other than salad leaves.  Her revulsion with food is symbolic of her rejection of the kind of behaviour expected of her as a woman. On the eve of her marriage she struggles against the idea that her change of status will mean she can no longer be herself. Atwood’s first novel was considered a landmark when it was published in 1969 because of its themes about gender stereotyping and objectification of women.

the vegetarian-1Fast forward some forty years and we find in my next link another author using women’s relationship with food to tackle the same issue.  The Vegetarian by Han Kang was one of the most extraordinary and disturbing books I’ve read in many years.   Yeong-hye is a docile, obedient South Korean wife until the day she decides to stop eating meat. In the eyes of her husband and family this is an act of gross rebellion against their culture so they try to force her to eat. It doesn’t work. She stops eating all together in the belief she is a tree and hence needs sustenance only from the earth.

The starvation both Yeong-hye and Marian McAlpine experience is the product of mental disturbance but for the protagonist in my next, and final link, starvation is thrust upon her by a force over which she has no control.

whitehunger_web_0_220_330

White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen takes a real life event in his native Finland, a devastating famine in 1867 that resulted from a series of poor harvests. The food shortage co-incided with a particularly harsh winter. In desperation Marja, a peasant farmer’s wife from the north, abandons her dying husband and sets off on foot through waist-high snow with her two young children. They trudge from village to village, sometimes supported by strangers but just as often turned away and denied even a morsel of bread. It’s a bleak book, and not just because of the many descriptions of the barren, inhospitable landscape, but because of what it says about human nature when faced on the doorstep with suffering.

It’s a sombre note on which to end this chain …

 

Around the world in 10 books

global-reading

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday hosted by Broke and Bookish gives me carte blanche to write about anything that takes my fancy. I know many bloggers and readers have a goal this year to broaden their reading horizons by selecting authors from different parts of the world. I’ve been making slow but steady progress down that path for the last few years so I thought this week I would take you all on my reading journey via 10 books I’ve discovered. I’ve selected novels that either a strong sense of the country or culture or that provide an insight into its history.

We start our journey in Asia …

  • India: I had so much choice here. In the end it was a toss up between Such a Long Journey by Rohinton Mistry or The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee. Mistry takes us into the heart of Mumbai at a time (1971) when the country was in the midst of internal upheaval and the Prime Minister uses her secret police to undermine the forces that threaten to disrupt the whole fabric of India. In the end I plumped for The Lives of Others which takes a similar path of portraying a family caught up in political turbulence. Mukherjee’s tale takes place a decade earlier than Mistry’s novel at a time when Communist forces were trying to de-stablise the country. I chose this novel because I had no idea about that aspect of India’s history but I also enjoyed the way Mukerjee showed how the breakdown in the political world was mirrored by a breakdown in the structure of one family.
  • Japan: Norwegian Wood by Murakami Huraki is an exquisitely written novel about love and despair but I chose this because it portrayed a different side of life in Japan. This is not the Japan of kimonos and geishas, of rituals and codes of behaviour but a world seen through the eyes of its young people. Huraki sets much of this novel in Tokyo in 1969, taking us through the student world of late night bars and all night cinemas with not a karoke microphone in sight.
  • China: Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Saijie. I knew before reading this novella that intellectuals were considered abhorrent by the Maoist regime in the 1970s and often lost their lives as a result. But I didn’t know that the regime also tried to ‘re-educate’ them by sending them off to live with the peasants in the countryside. Saijie’s novel follows two young boys despatched to a remote village where instead of being cleansed of all tainted ideas, they instead discover new ones through the novels of Balzac, Hugo and Flaubert that they have to hide from the authorities.

Let’s pick up our suitcases and make a brief stop in South America  …

  • Colombia: The Armies by Evelio Rosero Diago. As you sip your next cup of coffee spare a few moments to think about the country from which many of those beans originate. Diago’s novel is set at a time when citizens of Colombia live in fear of armed gangs and drug dealers who hide out in the hills. They may be killed or they may have been made to ‘disappear’. This is what Ismael −a retired teacher – fears has happened to his wife when he returns home to find the place deserted. The result is a deeply moving story about a man who cannot seek safety for himself until he knows the truth about his wife.

And now we’re en route to Africa …

  • South Africa:  I was tempted to go for Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton, a classic text set just before the introduction of apartheid but decided instead on a book that shows a completely different side of the country. Fiela’s Child  by Dalene Matthee is set well before the apartheid era but the issue of colour is still very much part of this novel about a white boy who goes missing from his woodcutter family and is found many years later living as the child of a native family. It’s a story that poses a question of which bond is stronger – that of the birth family or the family who raise and nurture the child?
  • Republic of the Congo: Broken Glass by Alain Mabanckou. This short novel brings some light relief from the serious issues with which a lot of African fiction is concerned. It’s set in a seedy bar and features the host of characters to be found propping up the bar and boring the pants off the other customers with their hard luck stories. In between we get some insights into their thoughts on life in the Congo, the delusional nature of the nation’s male population and the distrust of politicians and the nature of African politicians. It’s great fun to read and to try and spot Mabanckou’s numerous allusions to other texts.

And finally we land in Europe …

  • Finland: White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen. Until I picked this up from the Pereine Press catalogue I had no idea that Finland had experienced a devastating famine in the late 1860s. This novella holds nothing back in relating the misery caused by that event and the desperate lengths to which its citizens will go to save themselves. One of them – a peasant farmer’s wife from the north – is the focus of the novel. She abandons her dying husband and sets off on foot through waist-high snow with her two young children. You read this with a sense of dread about what awaits her.
  • Hungary:  Satantango by László Krasznahorkai. This is an equally grim though fascinating book which exposes the way evil materialises to take advantage of poor and desperate peasants already suffering the misery of an oppressive political regime. Not a book that will make you happy but it will certainly make you thankful not to be living under such a regime.
  • France:  L’Assommoir by Emile Zola. Paris, the ‘city of lights’,  had its dark  side in the nineteenth century. Behind the magnificent facades and glittering wealth were people living in abject poverty amid open sewers and overflowing drains. They dreamed of a different life but – according to Zola’s theory of naturalism – their inherited flaws of character or the environment around them would always bring them down. Zola always bases his novels on meticulous research so you can be sure all the detail of living conditions is far from exaggerated.
  • Italy: Inspector Montelbano series by Andrea Camilleri. I’m going to end with something which could be considered light reading compared to most of the titles in this list. Ask people to name anything associated with Italy and though some will mention ‘art’, ‘heritage’ it won’t be too long before you hear ‘wine’ and ‘pasta.’  Food and Italy are inseparable  which probably explains why Andrea Camilleri devotes so much time to describing the meals eaten by his lead character Inspector Montelbano. Few pages go by without a scene where the Inspector pops into his favourite trattoria for lunch – not for him your typical working day lunch of a sandwich while sat at the computer. This is a full blown three course affair. When he gets home at the end of a long day chasing criminals it’s to find his housekeeper has prepared him something delicious for supper. Camilleri is pretty mean to his readers by listing all these fabulous sounding meals but the tourist board of Sicily must be thrilled because the Montelbano books are guaranteed to make you want to dig out that passport and head for the island.
How are your reading travels going?

If you also are trying to broaden your reading this year, do share your experience. Perhaps you found some other gems for the countries I’ve mentioned. If you need inspiration take a look at the recommendations of bloggers who have written guest posts about the literature from their country – you’ll find them all on the View from Here page.

January indulgences

PereineThe phrase ‘January sales’ has never excited me. You will never find me in those queues of who camp outside shops in the early hours of Boxing Day waiting for the doors to open on the incredible bargains inside. In fact I try not to set foot in shops if I can help it until January is well and truly over.

But I confess that I have been on a bit of a buying spree in the last week.  I blame this on the weather. Torrents of rain day after day creating rivers on the road surfaces and lakes in my garden where there is supposed to be grass. Because its been unseasonably warm for the last two months, the daffodils have started to flower way earlier than normal. The poor things must be wondering what’s hit them and shouldn’t they just go back to sleep? Can’t say I blame them. All I want to do is snuggle up in front of the fire. Its at times like this hibernation begins to sound attractive.

To console myself I indulged in some online book shopping. Last year was the first time I’d read anything under the Pereine Press imprint (White Hunger) by  Aki Ollikainen. It was a delight to the senses from the minute I saw the tastefully understated cover to the quality of the paper and of course the writing. I started 2016 with a hankering for more. As Pereine say, these are collectors items. Arriving soon I hope will be the first batch from their back catalogue to enrich my reading of literature in translation:

  • Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman by Friedrich Christian Delius. This is the third book published by Pereine in 2010 as part of their Female Voices theme.  
  • The Blue Room  by Hanne Orstavik published in 2014 in the Coming of Age series
  • The Murder of Halland by the Danish author Pia Juul. Pereine number  8 came out in 2012
  • Stone in a Landslide by Maria Barbal. Published in 2010, this is Pereine number 2 and is the first English translation of a Catalan classic. 
  • Under The Tripoli Sky by Kamal Ben Hameda, a coming of age novel set in Libya before the Gaddafi era
  • Periene number 5 is Tomorrow Pamplona by the Dutch author Jan van Mersbergen

Now you’d think that little haul would be enough to satisfy anyone’s retain therapy needs. But not a bit of it. A few other acquisitions mysteriously made their way into the Booker Talk household this week. Namely The Daughter of Time and The Franchise Affair, both by Josephine Tey. She’s a Scottish author who wrote detective stories from the 1930s to her death in 1952. A new biography of her has just been released and reading to review of that last week convinced me she’s someone I’d like to get to know.

I’m not going to read any of these new purchases until at least May however because having agreed to join the Triple Dog Dare I’m going to spend the first four months of the year just reading what was already on my bookshelves come December 2015. But hey, none of these need more than a cosy shelf to sit on until they’re ready to be taken down and opened.

What have you all been buying lately?

 

Winning times

The Booker Talk household has been in a state of suspended excitement for the last week. I hardly ever win things in competitions or prize drawers (I suppose the fact that I don’t actually enter many of them might have something to do with that). But on the same day just over a week ago I learned that I had won, not one but two prizes.

whitehunger_web_0_220_330First to arrive was a copy of White Hunger which is a debut novel by a Finnish author called Aki Ollikainen. It’s set in 19th century Finland and follows a young woman’s journey from Finland to St Petersburg in an attempt to save her young children from starvation.  This was a give away from theoxfordculturereview.com (a wonderful source of info if you have any plans to visit the city) and published by Peirene Press.  The book won the title of Best Finnish Debut Novel 2012 and Finnish Book Bloggers’ Best Book 2012 and is now available in English.  Have any of you read this?

Just a few days later came a mystery gift from the London Review of Books as a result of a reader survey I completed.  I’m now the owner of a canvas tote bag (much nicer than plastic carrier bags and cheaper too since we have to pay for those in Wales); a few items from their cafe and a nicely bound compendium of articles published in the LRB.

Two successes. Do you think I could make it a third??

10 books for time-pressured readers

Short reads Some occasions cry out  for a short (ish) book. You may have just finished a 600 pager and want a change of pace. Or you might be about to head off for a weekend break and really don’t want to lug that heavy tome with you. Speaking of weight, the measly baggage allowances set by low cost airlines almost force you down the path of lighter (ie shorter) reading material.

So for those occasions here are some short reading options – I’m reluctant to call them quick reads because that implies lightweight content. In fact these are all novels that should get you thinking…

All the links take you to my reviews.

 

 

Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata: An enigmatic, rather bleak, tale of a love affair between Shimamura, a wealthy intellectual from Tokyo and Komako, a young geisha.

 

The Many by Wyl Menmuir: Another enigmatic story, this time set in a fishing village in Cornwall, UK that is contending with heavy pollution by “biological agents and contaminants” that has impacted its fishing grounds.

 

Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan: This is a touching novella about a young couple of newlyweds who arrive at a coastal hotel. They want their wedding night to be perfect but a problem arises which threatens their future.

Of Mice and Men by  John Steinbeck: How is it possible for a book of little more than 100 pages to contain so much depth? Yet Steinbeck does it with this parable about people  who are life’s losers yet never relinquish their hopes and ambitions for a better life.

The Murder of Halland by Pia Juul: From Denmark comes a crime story that confounds most of the conventions of that genre. Yes it has a murder and a detective but the discovery of the killer’s identity isn’t really the point of this novel. It’s more about the sense of loss and feelings of regret about failed relationships triggered by the murder.

White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen: In a harsh Finnish winter, a mother and her two children try to walk to St Petersburg in search of bread. It’s their only hope of avoiding death through starvation.

The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa: An odd little tale of a friendship between a Professor of mathematics who has severe memory problems, the woman sent to look after him and her son.

 

Disgrace by J, M Coetzee: A Booker-award winner set in post-apartheid South Africa that raises questions about sexual predatory behaviour, denouncement and reconciliation.

Fear and Trembling by Amelie Nothomb:  A young translator from Belgium falls foul of cultural expectations when she begins working for Yumimoto, a prestigious international corporation run on strictly hierarchical lines.

The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman by Denis Thierault: This is a lightly plotted story of a postman who falls in love with a young teacher in Guadeloupe, a woman he knows only via her letters and poems.

 

 

From football terrace to coal disaster [#6Degrees]

fever-pitch

Before he became Mr Darcy, Colin Firth was seen on the football terraces.

We begin this month’s Six Degrees of Separation chain (#6Degrees)  with Fever Pitch, a 1992 debut book by the British author Nick Hornby in which he told the story of his relationship with football, and in particular with one club – Arsenal. The book was a huge success not surprisingly, football being almost a religion for a large part of the British population, and went on to become a successful film.

I’ve never read it. While I’ve watched a few matches in the past and can appreciate the excitement, I have little interest in the niceties of the sport. I despair enough when I hear the amateur pundits in the pub talk about a recent match so the idea of reading a book structured chronologically around specific matches fills me with horror. Definitely not a book that will be on my wishlist.

Moving swiftly on however, the first book in my chain maintains the connection to sport.

1The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner is a short story by Alan Sillitoe that was published as part of a collection of the same name that came out in 1959. Its protagonist is a teenager who comes from a poor family in a working class area of Nottingham in England. His prospects are bleak. Sentenced to time in a young offenders institute he takes up long-distance running – his prowess brings him to the attention of the institution’s ambitious governor. This is a novel about rebellious youth and a refusal to conform. It’s gritty realism is compelling.

Sillitoe was one of the so-called “angry young men” – a group of mostly working and middle class playwrights and novelists prominent in the 1950s that were united by their disillusionment with traditional British society. Sillitoe disliked the label as did most of the other writers to whom it was applied, such as John Osborne, particularly when their work became more divergent in style and theme.

2The angry young men also included John Braine whose novel Room at the Top provides me with my second link. Braine was a Yorkshireman by birth who left school at the age of 16 to work in variously as a shop assistant, factory hand and librarian before turning his hand to writing.  Like The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Room at the Top provides a realistic portrayal of life in a working class community. It’s central character is Joe Lampton, an ambitious young man of humble origins who is determined to make something of himself and leave behind former acquaintances who he despises for their lack of life and character. But his complex relationship with two women shows he is a man of dubious morality. By the end of the novel, he is forced to consider the question of his responsibility for a tragic event. This is a novel which deals brilliantly with questions of morality and social mobility.

3My third link comes from another writer whose work is characterised by a social ‘edginess’. Stan Barstow wrote A Kind of Loving (1960) as  the first part of a trilogy featuring Vic Brown, a young  man from Yorkshire who is slowly inching his way up from his working class roots through a white-collar job. Vic finds himself trapped when his girlfriend becomes pregnant and they are forced, by the social rules of the time, into marrying. A housing shortage in northern England means they have to live with Ingrid’s domineering mother which further cramps Vic’s style.  This is a novel very much of its time which deals with ambition, consequences and compromises.

4

Social realism of course was not the exclusive purview of male writers. Almost a century before the angry young men made their mark, Elizabeth Gaskell  turned her attention to the brutality of life in the industrialised towns of northern England. My fourth link in the chain is one of her best known novels, North and South. Set in Manchester (Gaskell novel calls it  Milton) the novel looks at the troubled relationship between workers and and mill owners as seen through the eyes of one woman, the clergyman’s daughter Margaret Hale. Forced to move north from her childhood home in the leafy south of England, Margaret’s senses and sensibilities are shocked by the poverty and suffering she witnesses. It’s fair to say that Charles Dickens, Gaskell’s contemporary, covered some of the same issues but I preferred the more nuanced approach adopted by Gaskell – while she detailed the social misery experienced in the slum dwellings of the workers, she balanced this by showing that not all mill owners were oblivious to the suffering of their workers.   If all you know of Gaskell is her Cranford novels, you may be as surprised by North and South as I was when I read it about five years ago (see my review here).  

5Let stick with books set in the industrial heartland of the UK as we move onto number 5 in the chain.  The Stars Look Down is a 1935 novel by A. J. Cronin which takes place in a coal mining community in Northumberland. It traces various injustices experienced by its inhabitants over a period from just before World War 1 until the 1930s. Cronin conveys his theme through three principal figures who represent different points of view: one is a miner’s son who follows a political career to try and improve the life of people around him , the second is a miner who goes into business but is accused of being a war profiteer, and the third is the son of an unscrupulous colliery owner. Cronin’s story includes a number of pivotal moments which force these people, and the community to question its values. Like Gaskell he doesn’t come down unequivocally on one side or another – broadly you can see his sympathies lie with the workers but he also shows a recognition that some of the mine owners can be decent human beings.

6 I can’t get to the end of this chain and ignore fiction written about social conditions in my own part of the world – Wales. So for my final choice I’m selecting a novel that was one of the most highly talked about among my parent’s generation.  How Green Was My Valley is a 1939 novel by Richard Llewellyn about the Morgan family whose male members all earn their living in the dangerous world of coal mining.  It’s a story told by one of of the sons, Huw, whose academic ability sets him apart from his brothers and gives him a chance to build a future away from the mines. This is a family saga so we get the usual quota of thwarted love affairs, sibling rivalry etc but its the background of the harsh working conditions experienced by this family (and their neighbours) and their total dependancy on the mines, that provide the main interest. Cronin claimed he based the book on his personal experience though this was hotly disputed. Nevertheless the world he depicts is one my parents recognised and felt was authentic, from crippling strikes that caused hunger and set father against son, to questions about whether mine owners compromised safety in the interests of cost cutting and, inevitably to a disaster underground. The title of the book is a recognition that while coal mining brought jobs it also turned the green hillsides into black mountains, a situation that lasted well into my adult years.

Terraced houses, South Wales

Terraced houses, South Wales

And there we must end this chain. We’ve come a long way from the terraces of a London football club, travelling via northern England to Wales, encountering social disruption, class warfare and (mercifully) not much sport……I didn’t think I would be able to link book number six in the chain back to Fever Pitch but just as I was about to press ‘publish’ I had one of those light bulb moments. Fever Pitch is set on the terraces of various football clubs. Much of the action of How Green was My Valley takes places within the terraced houses of the South Wales valleys. How about that for a connection???

Books read

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We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

weneednewnamesIt took me almost two years to get around to reading We Need New Names, the first novel by an author from Zimbabwe to be shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.  I’m glad I made it.  NoViolet Bulawayo’s book has a tremendously memorable narrative voice, thought provoking themes and characters so vividly drawn they practically jumped out of the page to shake your hand. I was reading this while on holiday and could look up from my shady spot across the Zambezi River to the very landscape in which the novel is set, imagining Darling and the friends and family in her town just beyond the trees.

The Zimbabwe depicted in the novel is a country in the midst of crisis. Its people long for ‘real change’ but they and their country are “falling apart” (a direct reference to Chinua Achebe’s novel). Their opinions count for nothing at the ballot box and hopes for real change die when the same order is re-elected, leaving them once again scratching for a living by selling trinkets and relying on aid agencies who dole out sweets and toys and meagre food items in return for freely taking photographs insensitive to the fact that the people they capture are embarrassed by their torn and dirty clothes.  Not surprisingly the poplin this land hold onto a dream that one day they can get out of this land.

Look at them leaving in droves, the children of the land. Those with nothing are crossing borders. Those with strength are crossing borders. Those with ambitions are crossing borders. Moving, running, emigrating, going, deserting, walking, flying, fleeing — all to countries whose names they cannot pronounce.

Not that just any country will do as their destination. In one of the games played by thirteen year old Darling and her friends they each have to choose a country.

Everybody wants to he the USA and Britain and Canada and Australia and Switzerland. Nobody wants to be rags of countries like Congo, like Somalia, like Iraq, like Sudan, like Haiti and not even this one we live in — who wants to be in a terrible place of hunger and things falling apart.

Darling has been sent to live with her grandmother in a shanty town called Paradise while her mother treks to the border every few months to sell carved animals and beads to tourists. Her father went off to the capital in search of work but hasn’t been seen for years.  Darling runs riot with her friends Godknows, Bastard and Chipo, stealing guavas, singing Lady Gaga songs and playing Find Bin Laden. It’s fun but anything but carefree. Chip though only 13 years old is carrying her grandfather’s child, Aids is rife and partisans begin attacking white settlers.

Darling does leave the country though her new life in the environs of Detroit (otherwise known to Darling as Destroyedmichygen) doesn’t turn out the way she expected nor the happiness she anticipated. It brings her new challenges as she struggles to adjust to her new environment.  She makes new friends eventually (some of the funniest sections of the book are when she and her friends watch porn films with the sound turned off so they can make the accompanying grunts and groans themselves). Not entirely at home in her new world however, she tries to retain her connection to Paradise home only to be rejected by her old friends. Hers is not a unique experience she believes. Thousands of Africans left their land with hope for the future, only to find they are welcomed with restraint not open arms.

When we got to America we took our dreams, looked at them tenderly as if they were new born children and put them away. We would not be pursuing them. We would never be the things we wanted to be. Doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers. We dropped our heads because we were no longer people. We were now illegals.

Although We Need New Names is Darling’s story, in a broader sense it is the story of a nation and of the immigrant experience and of the superficiality of aid agency attitudes. Bulawayo presents this in a narrative that is often poetic and always alive and confident.

This was Bulawayo’s debut novel, born out of a short story that won the Caine prize. for African writing It will be fascinating to see what she does next.

EndNotes

We Need New Names is published in UK by Chatto & Windus

NoViolet Bulawayo (the pen name of Elizabeth Zandile Tshele) was born in Zimbabwe in 1981, a year after the country gained independence. At the age of 18 she left for America, settling in Kalamazoo, Michigan. She gained her Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at Cornell University in 2010.

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