Review: The Tower – Alessandro Gallenzi.

The ‘well researched’ novel, sounds a serious, humorless thing. Alessandro Gallenzi, clearly draws on inspiration from his time in publishing, like he did in his previous novel Bestseller, and also on some meticulous research of a time gone by for his new novel, The Tower.

Principally, it is the late fifteen hundreds. Giordano Bruno, revolutionary thinker, inspired by the Copernican revolution thinking about the world and the Universe outside the  dominant paradigm of creationism, is being pursued for being a heretic. Alternating between the seven years of Giordano’s trial, and the present day story of Peter Simm’s and assistant Giulia Ripetti, they search for one of Giordano’s missing documents in Amman, Jordan.

Not that the two narrative arcs mirror each other completely, but mirroring the construction of St Peter’s Basilica in the 1590’s , is that of the ‘The Tower’ in the present day. It is going to be the tallest building in the world and Gallenzi describes it’s come to existence as “it [money] flowed from banks, from hedge funds, from private equities and from shareholders’ pockets all over the globe. That was the invisible sap pushing up this rootless, preposterous tree in the middle of the desert.” Here, a vast digitization project is being undertaken, where they plan to scan every text in the world in a digital library. Although, Google is referenced once as a potential rival, it sounds a lot like Google, but with a conspicuous sounding name (Biblia).

One of Bruno’s texts goes missing, along with priest sent by the Vatican to study them, and Peter and Giulia are plunged into this mystery. It sounds slightly Dan Brown, and even more Dan Brown, when Giulia finds a conspiratorial ‘message’ left in her Bible
“There was a dead earthworm cut in half. Either side of it, the words BOOK and WORM were scrawled in what appeared to be blood.” A literary illuminati.

But the book, thankfully is not Dan Brown, although Peter and Giulia’s relationship is at times an underdeveloped cliché. If anything, it’s a satire of the Dan Brown inflicted publishing world, marketed (maybe jokingly) as a thriller, because that would be to undermine it. What the two towers represent, if anything, is the imposing ideologies of the two worlds Peter, and Giordano represent. For Giordano, it’s obviously religion. But for the present world, although slightly insinuative that religion has a part to play in it, it is the wealth, the internet, the mega-corporations. So it would be crass to call it all Orwellian, but the present day scenario Gallenzi constructs certainly is. It is essentially ludicrous, but that is some of the beauty of it, “Our ambition is to have all the world’s books, magazines, newspapers, manuscripts digitized by the year 2020.” Implausible sounding but all too real, and sounded off by a mawkish American, Gallenzi uses the tower to make visible what we cannot see – the invisible, operating in cyberspace, or the deep bowels of government to keep information free from access.

It is a grand caricature. It might be slightly thrilling for you, in this world of metaphor. Giordano’s great theory is built on this idea of pictures and images “he simply thought that human language is weak limited. He believed in the power of images.” Bruno, the great mnemonic sounding early Wittgenstein. Because, although it might not necessarily be a thriller, Gallenzi does have a tendency to unnecessarily kill the pace. There are the paragraphs of rhetorical questioning, some pushing a page, that become as frustrating as they do stultifying. For the two narrative arcs as well, due to the length, they feel slightly undercooked (it has to be noted that there is a twelve page historical end note which cuts the fiction off at 299 pages). But as a suspected terrorist climbs the tower, you’re forced to ask yourself, who is the terrorist. Where are the freedom of information fighters?

There are many different ways you can read the whole novel. I saw it as a satire; a satire of Christianity; a satire of the internet age; a satire of google; a satire of publishing; even a satire of the Dan Brown novel. And as Freud said, a joke is a serious thing, and within The Tower, the well-researched novel, there is a serious message that deserves to be read.

The Tower by Alessandro Gallenzi (311 pp.) is published by Alma Books and is out now (£12.99 rrp.). Thank you to them for providing a review copy.

Below the Surface: Reading Burmese Days

George Orwell’s first novel Burmese Days (1934) is preceded by a quote from Shakespeare’s As You Like It: ‘That in this desert inaccessible, Under the shade of melancholy boughs’. This spoken after Jacques encounter with the clown Touchstone. And so, In Burmese Days as John Flory occupies deepest Burma, in the wilderness of British Colonialism, Flory exists in a place of remote despotism – Burma ruled by the British Empire. As Orwell reflects on the empire supposed to be Great, we’re reminded of Touchstone’s later remark in the play ‘And so from hour to hour we ripe and ripe, and then from hour to hour we rot and rot’ which sounds even more poignant. The Empire for Orwell, was both a source of enrichment and poison.

Perhaps there is something in that sense of delay, of Orwell not giving that more urgent precedent. The Empire was rotting or a rot as Orwell saw it, and it was not a method of ‘ripening’ or enlivening humanity. But for something to rot it means that there is still action, change and transformation; something is living, even though it may not be the thing itself. As bacteria eats away at the dying, essentially, the thing has ceased to exist yet. Orwell said in 1929, under his real name of Eric Blair, in a French newspaper ‘The government of all the Indian provinces under the control of the British Empire is of necessity despotic, because only the threat of force can subdue a population of several million subjects. But this despotism is latent. It hides behind a mask of democrac’. Whilst decay may be obvious, we’ve all heard the case of the ‘rotten apple’, not knowingly unhealthy until we’ve bitten into it, or as Orwell said there – revealed its mask.

Burmese Days is a bite into that apple. It is set within the British Raj, living inside its processes and contradictions, based partly on Orwell’s experiences in the military police whilst in Burma, and in the words of Orwell, ‘much of it is simply reporting what I saw’ (although admitting that most of it was inaccurate). We know now to be careful of how we interpret Orwell’s matter-of-fact statements, a man who has written fictions about ideologies, cannot simply be reporting what he has seen. Before Orwell was stationed in Burma , Emma Larkin in the introduction to the 2009 edition, and author of Secret Histories: Finding George Orwell In a Burmese Tea Shop, notes how Orwell was a ‘typical child of the empire’ and ‘enjoyed the decadence of the ruling class in Burma’. For Orwell to say it was ‘simply reporting what he saw’ is arguably one of the several tongue in cheek remarks he made about his fiction and in his non-fiction. However you take it, what Orwell saw in Burma was a formalising element for his fiction and perhaps his non-fiction as well.
It focuses on John Flory – not a wholly semi-autobiographical account for Orwell despite sharing particular traits and looks – a 35 year old teak merchant in the fictional district of Kyauktada. Here, the Europeans have higher prestige over the Burmese, which the Burmese submissively recognise. Zadie Smith remarked how Middlemarch despite its size physically and metaphysically, was weirdly and obsessively local. Here, Orwell seems to share that very British trait. Local politics naturally reflect global ones, and Orwell seems to have the very British fascination with locality. U Po Kyin, a Burmese magistrate plans to destroy the reputation of the Indian Doctor Veraswami, because of the election to the European club, and it is the chalice that they ultimately both desire, and Veraswami, in a non-exploitative way hopes his friendship with Flory will get him there. Flory and Veraswami then is quite an unconventional relationship as Veraswami, the native and the oppressed defends the Raj to Flory, the oppressor’s, disdain.

In Flory, it is not so much a biographical device, but it does feel like an abstracted Orwell, the roaming spectator of a man who could eventually write 1984 and Animal Farm. Certainly, early incarnations of Orwell’s ideas appear to be prevalent; Flory is ‘the lone and lacking individual trapped within a bigger system that is undermining the better side of human nature’ which is something that could have been taken from 1984. With Orwell, his prophecies of totalitarianism were often attributed to the rise of fascist states in Germany and Russia, but it’s evident that the warnings come from much closer to home. There is the irony and contradiction again. Orwell was a series of contradictions and the Empire was an ultimate contradiction for him, to at one time in life to enjoy its decadence that it afforded, but to realise its penury later.
Let’s look at the prevailing and obvious motif in Burmese Days –  Flory’s birthmark, a large physical aspect of Flory’s appearance. It’s given an introduction by Orwell worthy of being its own separate character: ‘the first thing that one noticed in Flory was hideous birthmark stretching in a ragged crescent down his left cheek, from the eye to the corner of the mouth…And all the times when he was not alone, there was a sidelongness about his movements, as he maneouvred constantly to keep the birthmark out of sight’. And keep it out of sight he does, quite implausibly throughout apart from one important moment, which is the enduring, impossible irony. Whilst Flory shares some aspects of Orwell’s appearance, the birthmark represents that token of appearance that is central to life in Kyauktada – skin colour – but also its obviousness means that it’s something more than that. As Larkin states in the introduction, the birthmark marks represents that personal emblem, that love he had of a child, unwittingly not knowing the implications of it, yet that stays with him. A ‘child of the empire’ she calls him and and whether Larkin chose those words purposefully there is an unsettling of coincidence if she did not.
A birthmark is irremovable, they can fade or become more noticeable through several factors, but where white skin supremacy is prevalent throughout Kyauktada, is it then Flory’s or a projection of Orwell’s blemish? Is it that sense of rotting or of there being something beneath the veneer? In this sense I think Orwell shares something with later Philip Roth, this explicitly male fascination that Burmese Days upholds, the revulsion but also the wonder of the messy contradictions of humanity (admittedly, mostly male). With Flory made to bear it and take part in it, he is the only redeeming white man at the European club, despite him still being part of it. It’s only personal that he seems to be able to rebuke it. Like Coleman Silk in Philip Roth’s The Human Stain, he wears his stain on the outside (unlike a novel such as The Plot Against America the stain is within: the narrator, a young Philip Roth, bears witness to the many different males in his world wondering what to revile and what to admire and eventually becomes externalised).
Time has not done a great service to Orwell, which is ironic, as he was a man who had an ability to resurrect or sustain disregarded writers through his own criticism. Perhaps this is because Orwell is a writer who can be taken upon any mantle to prove a point; at times he appears to revile against individualism, but then at others, he only sees futility in a collective state, and an inevitable descent into totalitarianism. As such his verbatim quotations are ravaged out of their context to support any argument. But I think this is a fate Orwell would have taken a humorous satisfaction in; he was a writer at home with contradictions and realised that from contradictions, there emanated truths. We all know of his essays on writing and perhaps most famously, Politics and the English Language, written in 1946, some years after Burmese Day, where he wrote of prose being like a ‘windowpane’, and ‘not choosing long words where short ones will do’. These are all quite idealistic, even juvenile mantras, largely dismissed even. But instead, reading them now, after my own, probably juvenile fascination, they represent a way of saying that the truth is not so easily obtainable as reducing writing to simplicity, but there is not necessarily any greater or higher artistic truth to be gained either.

And if you look at Burmese Days, the novel represents a lesson in that. As Orwell said in Why I Write ‘I wanted to write enormous naturalistic novels with unhappy endings, full of detailed descriptions and arresting similes, and also full of purple passages in which my words were used partly for the sake of their sound. And in fact my first complete novel, Burmese Days…. is rather that kind of book’. It was an experiment in contradiction. Orwell’s biographer D.J Taylor said ‘the most striking thing about the novel is the extravagance of its language: a riot of rococo imagery that gets dangerously out of hand’ and then you start to see the formula behind Why I Write. Like his experience of the Empire, it was as if Orwell did not want to gloss these truths for the sake of an artistic truth, for the sake of imagery, because that was what he was riling against in the first place. Perhaps then Marcellus’s line from Hamlet would have been a more appropriate epitaph: ‘there is something rotten in the state of Denmark’, substituting Denmark for Burma. There was something rotten in the state of the world, and Orwell realised by the end of Burmese Days that there was no point in concealing it. Like Kyauktada, Orwell realised that beneath the skin, of which our imperialised world based itself on, was the messy world of humanity, a world of flaws, contradictions and painful truths: we have to be thankful that writers like Orwell were willing to confront this, because often we cannot do it ourselves and for good, life-affirming intentions. Orwell was willing to bear his own failures of belief and conviction. It wasn’t flaws in his writing (although sometimes it was), but one can feel the flaws felt personal, even if they were detached and removed from himself, problems with the world; a realisation that fiction can only go so for in correcting our internal world, sublimating it into an understanding for ourselvesbut only going as far as illuminating the outer, proper world.

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Sea of Ink by Richard Weihe, a Review.

Whenever I see that quote about Peirene Press from the TLS “two hour books to be devoured in one single sitting: literary cinema for those fatigued by film”  I feel Peirene should see injustice. Why must it be done in one single sitting. Obviously its the marketing of these books by Peirene, but the connotations of these books to DVD’s and cinema is detrimental. Once again, it has been proven that Peirene’s title have a more enduring legacy than a DVD with their number 9 title Sea of Ink, by Richard Weihe, exquisitely translated from the German by Jamie Bullock as these contemporary titles continue to emerge in the market under the Peirene Banner.
The tastes continue to be as eclectic as ever, because this time, fact and fiction are blended in this historical novella of the life of the iconic Chinese artist – Bada Shanren. Weihe, does not expect the reader to be an expert on the history of Chinese art as he guides and narrates this understated tale of artistic endeavour and prestige. In fact, it could be argued the more naive the better and undoubtedly gives Weihe some breathing room to fictionalise the story, the antithesis of Laurent Binet’s HHhH if you will. Comparatively little is known about Bada Shanren, apart from his legacy of ink pieces, some of which are interpersed throughout the short, rarely more than a page long chapters/sections.
It opens in 1644, with Zhu Da, not Bada Shanren. Zhu Da, or Bada Shanren’s life depending which way you look at it, is succession of name changes and pseudonyms, and Zhu Da is the Prince of Niyang, 17th son of the founder of the Ming dynasty. He was born in privilege, little exposed as Weihe puts it ‘a sheltered childhood in the palace, surrounded by splendour and wealth’. There is no mercurial, prodigal talent hinted at Weihe, which is good to see, avoiding cliche success story, instead Zhu Da must achieve his legacy through hard work and dedication, unbound from his political heritage. His father is the talent, a much revered painter at the time, but it is his grandfather who exposes him to art,
“Zhu’s grandfather made him a scroll painting of a dragon for his bedroom. The young Zhu, thought this was the largest creature that ever existed….In his dreams the fire-spitting monster broke free from the paper and little Zhu had to leap into the water to save himself”.
It is this moment, early on, that seems to instigate Zhu on his artistic pathway to Bada Shanren, as the metaphor of the dragon is purposefully overbearing and scuppered by Zhu. The dragon, such a formidable image in chinese culture is effectively abandoned, seemingly down to its potential political connotations. As Zhu leaps into the water in to his dream to save himself, you see the fish become the most recurring allusion for the rest of the novella. Indeed it is the ‘biggest creature that ever lived’ and the fact that the mythological creature could live in Zhu’s world speaks volumes. Psychological dragon-slaying. The constrains of his political upbringing are enunciated when ‘the sun extinguished on the Ming dynasty’ later on in the story, causing the prince to flee to the mountains.
The contemporaneity of the story, is thanks to Weihe’s message of how Zhu Da becomes Bada Shanren – how do you become the artist? Before the artistry, Bada Shanren  immerses himself in Buddhism, then alias Chanqi and on mastering it, Xeuge (the straight line linearity of the novell avoids any confusion with the name changes). This allows for Confucian philosophy to be entwined in the story, most memorable for the descriptions of the ink paintings after Bada Shanren learns the way of the artist and the Buddha as if they’re linked in some transcendent way. At first there is the slightly humorous metaphor of the young Bada Shanren painting with an overly large brush, physically overwhelming him, and being dominated by the implement. Of course it becomes him dominating the tool…
“When you have  my brushes in your hand then remember my words” the master said. “The water that flows beneath the mountains and the sea will teach you all that you need to know to understand about the world. It has the rare quality of being able to fit all beings without dispute. Knowing the functions of the mountain without knowing the functions of the water is like the man who sinks into the sea without knowing its beaches or stands the beach without knowing the immense spaces which fill the sea”.
Still, Bada Shanren must continue to fight other external intrusions in his recluse, or ‘vagabond’ as Weihe puts it. Bada Shanren is subject to commercialism in the form of ‘Nobles and rich men everywhere began to venerate the creations of the brush’ and hitting notes of the rampant monetary exploitation of artists today in any kind of form and the need to make a living. The political backdrop also lingers on the periphery, threatening to affect Bada Shanren’s equilibrium as the new rulers are greatly interested in classical Chinese culture; ‘the new rulers wished to write the history of their empire and for this they needed experts on previous eras’ and offer Bada Shanren ‘ to colloborate on the great history project’. It sounds very Orwellian and only now as we see artists and novellist from China breaking the political dogma and censorship to leak through into the western market. Of course there are the high profile cases like Ai Wei Wei, but one has to question how many incidents like these do not get coverage, it is a timely reminder by Weihe, of the past he is creating is still a big issue today (and its also vital to remember that Weihe is not Chinese as well).
Weihe reconstructs the life of Bada Shanren avoiding cliche and his realist prose carries the lucidity of the story. It is linear in realist fashion, with no room for flashbacks or retrospect, just the calm eddying flow like the rivers and mountains he keeps alluding to, such is the way of his understated and soothing pen. Interestinly, as you look at the copies of Bada Shanren’s art, and the use of only black ink on white paper (which is not just down to the printing, and would have been a very odd situation had it been colourful) there is a cohesive effect of the art, the words, and the prose creating an image as the relative minimalism of the paintings, the light and shade mimicking the tonal productions of Bada Shanren’s art like that defined in the following passage,
“When he placed his right hand on the white, unpainted part of the paper he noticed that the stem and the lower part of the flower traced the outline of his thumb and wrist exactly. With ink he had painted a flower, and with the area he had left blank he had depicted part of his hand”
It is what Weihe’s prose, Bada Shanren’s art, implicitly and explicitly say. He manages to keep himself detached both emotionally and politically as the contemporary aspects of it are visceral, which could be down to Weihe not being chinese, or just the historical era it is set in. Its an Orwellian back drop essentially, but devoid of the irony and menace in Orwell’s great works. In Weihe’s afterword he speaks of how the pictures aroused his curiosity – their basic ambiguity and how little is known about Bada Shanren. Sea of Ink is about Zhu Da, Bada Shanren, his art and endeavour and the subjugation experienced by artists. If it is no good, at least let it be yours and at the very least it will be original which is spoken by Bada Shanren, one way or another in the story. This could also be said of Peirene Press that have reproduced a book that truly is art. Whilst being slightly averse to the historical novel here, this book proves that there are some parts of history that need to be rewritten.

Sea of Ink,  118 pp. by Richard Weihe is out now and published by Peirene Press. Thank you to Trip Fiction for providing this review copy, and a smaller version of this review features on their website.

Death and Night and Blood: Why I Read Yukio Mishima, by JuleJames1961

I was, and still am, a big fan of The Stranglers. They came to the fore during the First Great Punk War of 1976/77 but were never accepted as part of that scene, too old, too musical, a couple of them had long hair and beards. After their first two albums: Rattus Norvegicus and No More Heroes, in 1978 they released their third album: Black and White. It was more cerebral, still angry, still unmistakably The Stranglers. They allowed their musicianship to come through more than they had on their previous two albums. Fourth track on the Black side was: Death and Night and Blood (Yukio).

Jean Jacques Burnel, The Stranglers’ bass guitarist explained in an interview in the NME, that Yukio was a Japanese author: Yukio Mishima.

And that would have been the end of that, except…

…I was 16 at the time and from the local library I was borrowing books in a methodical system: week one, three books from the ABC section; two weeks later, three books from DEF; and on until I got to XYZ; starting again at ABC. I chose books because of an interesting title or spine colour or cover art or, in the case of Clockwork Orange, notoriety. I read George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, John Le Carré, H G Wells and a forest of books that have since disappeared into the murky cupboard that is my memory. Then one week while in MNO I came across The Decay of the Angel by Yukio Mishima and thanks to J J Burnel I took it home.

If asked, ‘What is your favourite book?’ by default my reply is 1984, however, I can’t remember the first time I read it or how I felt. There have been other books that have left me astonished on the first read: A Clockwork Orange; Nicholas Nickleby; As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning; and The Decay of the Angel. I was hooked from the first page, he was describing the sea, colours, boats, the prose was extraordinary.

I can’t remember if I knew that it was the fourth part of a tetralogy or if I knew anything about Mishima other than the blurb on the inside of the cover, I know it was the only Mishima in the library. I was captivated, I had never read anything like it before, the words flowed from the page. The fact that it was the fourth part meant that I dismissed the character Honda and only in subsequent years would I realise that he was in fact the central figure in all four books. Kinue and Tōru, particularly Kinue fascinated me, a mad girl who believes that she was the most beautiful girl in the world.

A few years later a picked up a copy The Sea of Fertility containing all four books: Spring Snow; Runaway Horses; The Temple of Dawn; and The Decay of the Angel. The stallholder was a bit upset that someone had bought it; as she wanted to read it herself and suggested that I should bring it back when I was finished with it. It’s still on my shelf 30 years later.

By this time I’d learnt more about Mishima, his politics and his life, none of which chimed with me but didn’t diminish for me the beauty of the writing, in a strange way it enhanced it.

Nearly 35 years after I first read it I downloaded onto my new Kindle the four books that make up The Sea of Fertility, I spent the next year re-reading them, I originally planned to read one after the other but in the end decided to spread them out, I knew that once I started Angel I would be near the end and I wanted to put that off for as long as possible. This re-read was an eye opener, I appreciated the thread of reincarnation that runs through the four books this time, the ending of Angel made more sense when read in context of the series, if fact reading Angel this time I questioned what the 16 year old made of it. I was reading the first three books just as a prelude to those first few paragraphs of Angel. I was not disappointed, I wasn’t as astounded as I had been all those years ago but it was still a pleasure and there aren’t many books that can do that.

This time with access to the Internet I had the ability to learn more of Mishima the man rather than Mishima the writer which gave an edge to the stories. Having knowledge of his death made the almost loving description of the ritual of Seppuku more poignant and the failed coup in Runaway Horses is strangely reminiscent of Mishima’s final days.

His Imperialism, his patriotism, his violent end are at odds with his incredibly beautiful words and that paradox makes Angel more substantial, deeper.

The Stranglers at the time were unpopular with the music press, they didn’t take criticism very well, journalists were likely to end up gaffer taped to the Eiffel Tower after a bad review; they were the Men In Black, macho, misogynist. But underneath the black leather jackets they were bright, articulate, literate musicians, at least one of them had read and appreciated Mishima, and thereby inspiring at least one person to pick up The Decay of the Angel.

JuleJames1961 ©2013

Bio.
JuleJames1961: I post a weekly blog on literature
and the sheer joy of reading. Everything from Dickens to Orwell via Ian Fleming and Enid Blyton.
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