In for a Penny, In for a Pound: The Factory Novels by Derek Raymond

The Factory Novels by Derek Raymond (published by Melville House)

The Devil’s Home On Leave

How the Dead Live

I Was Dora Suarez

 

RaymondBundleSweeney Todd, the notorious barber of Fleet Street, first appeared in an 1846 Victorian Penny Dreadful entitled “The String of Pearls: A Romance”.  Dreadfuls were cheap chapbooks, sold for a penny a piece (later reduced to half-pence, or Half Penny Dreadfuls) which churned out sensationalist serialized fiction for London’s newly literate mobs.

 In that first incarnation the Demon Barber of Fleet Street sent his victims to their deaths through a trapdoor rigged behind and beneath his barber chair.  Usually cause of death was from the broken neck or skull which occurred upon landing.  It was only the survivors of the fall who Todd would  “polish off” – slitting their throats with his straight razor.  The remains were then taken to a Mrs. Lovett, the proprietress of a nearby meat pie shop, by means of a connecting tunnel.  The bodies were ground up and used as pie-filling in pastries sold to an unsuspecting public.

History has shown that what is sensational and lurid to one generation becomes humdrum to the next.  Over time Sweeney Todd went from being a villain to the hero or, more accurately, anti-hero. The violence escalated and he began slitting all his victims’ jugulars, the trap door merely an expedient means of conveying the bodies into the basement.  Originally tried and hanged for his crimes, in later versions (notably Sondheim’s 1979 musical adaptation) Todd is killed by his own razor.  Even Mrs. Lovett’s fate became more violent – poison is replaced by being burned alive.

Perhaps the most disturbing escalation is that of Todd’s assistant Toby Ragg. In “The String of Pearls” Toby is a young man banished to an asylum by Todd & Mrs. Lovett when he begins to feel remorse for the his part in the murders. He appears at the end to testify against Todd and then goes on to lead a peaceful life as a domestic servant. Skip forward 161 years to Tim Burton’s 2007 film adaptation and Ragg has evolved into a young orphan boy who loves Mrs. Lovett as a mother – making her betrayal all the more horrifying when she conspires with Todd to kill the child.  Ragg escapes and returns in the final scene to slit Todd’s throat as revenge for Todd’s murdering  Mrs. Lovett.

This long and convoluted introduction has a point.  Derek Raymond, author of the five novels that make up The Factory series, is by many considered the father of British crime noir. But Raymond is also very much a descendant of those penny dreadful authors of the 19th century.  His writing relies on the same formula  of sensationalism, horror and mawkish sentiment.  He explores the same genres – detective stories, gothic horror and gore – which made the dreadfuls popular among young boys.  Yes, he was heavily influenced by Raymond Chandler and the noir films and novels of the 40’s & 50’s – but Derrick Raymond cast a wider net than some give him credit for. Not just quoting (and the books contain a surprising amount of literary quotes), but in a sense paying homage to Dickens and a host of lesser known authors from the Victorian period.

Each Factory novel describes a case solved by the unnamed, maverick detective in A14, the Unexplained Deaths department of a London police station nicknamed the Factory.  They feature a cast of reoccurring characters: the unnamed detective (of course), his superior “the Voice” and his nemesis Inspector Bowman in Important Crimes. On the whole, the unnamed detective is a loner in the tradition of hard-boiled literature, but manages to find a few allies who share his desire to find justice for the dead.  The Devil’s Home On Leave, How the Dead Live and I Was Dora Suarez are the middle three books of the series.   The Devil’s Home On Leave, the most conventional and least interesting of the three, investigates a contract killing and delves into the criminal underworld of 1980’s London.  How the Dead Live is a gothic love story complete with a decaying mansion, lovers tragically separated.  The plot (tweaked for the 20th century) and prose style are in the vein of Mary Shelley or Nathaniel Hawthorne. The fourth book – the last to be published during the author’s lifetime – is the most contemporary in that the major plot points rely most heavily on current events. The victim, the titular Dora Suerez, is dying of AIDS at the time of her murder.

These novels – romances if we call them what they are – were intended for male consumption.  Like Chandler’s LA noir novels and the Westerns of Louis L’Amour there exists a clean line between good and evil. The villains have no redeeming qualities.  The women are madonna’s or whores.  The heroes are seldom rewarded, or even respected, for doing what is right.  There is a certain amount of fantasy fulfillment involved.  Male readers relate to the protagonists because they want to be like them: honorable and good. Modern knights-errant looking to protect the vulnerable.  The fact that these heroes are imperfect and damaged only makes them more identifiable, and the fantasy more attainable.

Raymond also trades in darker fantasies. One of his many careers before settling on writing was as a pornographer. The graphic nature of the physical and sexual violence increases with each book, becomes more literal and less literary, so that by the time we’ve reached the opening scenes of I Was Dora Suarez (the fourth book in the series) the descriptions of the murders convey the disturbing lurid voyeuristic fetishism of a snuff film or torture porn. In those first few pages the killer brutally dismembers his victim, ejaculates into her wounds and licks up her blood.  He defecates in the corner of the room.

Bowman said:’Why do so many of them feel they have to do that?’

‘It’s egoism and overexcitement,’ I sad. ‘It’s part of a very complicated way of getting your rocks off  it’s also like someone illiterate signing some document with an X.’

He stirred the stool with the tip of his Regent Street boot. ‘What chance do you think you’ve got, catching him?’

I said, ‘I’ll get him.’

‘We think so, too, said Bowman. ‘but don’t think we’re going to do you any out-of-the-way favours.’

‘I’ll find my own way of getting any help I need,’ I said, ‘and as for favours, you may find htat by putting me on this you won’t have done yourself any.’ I added: ‘Just fuck off now, Charlie, will you? I want to be on my own.’

No detail is left to the imagination.  As each layer of the mystery is peeled back events become more and more sordid.  It starts to feel as if a line is being crossed, the one that Val McDermid discussed in a 2010 interview. “Murder is not a parlour game; it’s not a cheap thrill, and some people write about it like ‘Let’s get onto the next victim and have a cheap thrill’. I don’t like the kind of writing that glories in violence, that treats victims as disposable objects.”

The author redeems himself, barely. Readers, through the detective, come to know the victims intimately.  And while the perpetrators of violence have motives – those motives are stated rather than explored.  It is how the victims came under the purview of Unexplained Deaths that Raymond truly cares about.  How the timeline of their lives came to converge with their murderer’s at the moments of their deaths.  In How the Dead Live we gather information through conversations the unnamed detective has with the victim’s husband; in I Was Dora Suarez we read excerpts from Dora’s journal. The dead are treated with respect, empathy and kindness despite the violent circumstances of their deaths.

 ‘…However, my dead remarry in the air I breathe, invisible yet solid, reliving their situations in this wet house – a calm, upright spirit is the one response to evil, and that is our fight.

‘At least I know now what I have lost here I can never lose again.

‘Oh God, if I had been born stupid I would have gone to my death like an ox and been eaten for my meat by my tormentors without ever knowing or caring why.’

Empathy and some interesting stylistic innovations are the marks of this author’s work.  One of the most unusual and effective trick is the way Raymond incorporates cockney rhyming or “Geezer” slang into his characters’ dialogue. Criminals “do bird” in prison.  Snitches are “grasses”. The “Factory” is another name for the police station. To an American reader it’s like a foreign language – completely disarming.  The story could just as easily exist in the recent past or a distant and gritty dystopian future.  The novels are, in fact, set during Margaret Thatcher’s London – something not immediately apparent based on, nor particularly relevant to, most of what takes place.

The choice to leave the two central characters (the unnamed detective and his superior, the Voice), nameless adds to the feeling of being outside of time.  It  reminded me of Philippe Claudel’s novel The Investigation. Perhaps the anonymity is meant, as it was in Claudel’s novel, to express some kind of post-modern nihilism on the part of the author?  Or maybe Raymond was just bad at coming up with names?

Most likely the latter.  For as enjoyable as they are, the Factory novels are every bit as campy, sentimental and contrived as those early 19th century Dreadfuls. The unnamed detective, in particular, can only be described as emotionally overwrought – his thoughts and dialogue expressed in deep purple prose. The tragedy in his back story is extravagant: a mentally deranged wife in an asylum for killing their only daughter; a partner who, wounded in the line of duty, is now paralyzed and sidelined; regular conflicts with fellow officers more concerned with personal glory and career advancement than justice for the dead.

I haven’t picked up the final book of the series, Dead Man Upright, yet.  And I’m not sure if I will. It was published posthumously, and so like all posthumous works you can’t help but wonder what level of completion it was left in by the author. I’m also more worried about what Raymond and fate have in store for the detective than I like to admit.  I don’t hold out much hope for his making a good end.  He’s too emotionally raw for the work he does. Too isolated from society.  He doesn’t seem to have the sense to buffer himself with alcohol and dames and wisecracks like his American counterparts. No, I don’t believe this series will end well for anyone.  In fact I’d wager complete scorched-earth devastation taking place in the final chapter.  Emotional subtlety – subtlety of any kind if we are being honest – is not Derek Raymond’s strong suit.

The Map and the Territory by Michel Houellebacq, translated from the original French by Gavin Bowd

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This is the cover from the British edition, published by William Heinemann. I bought the book after hearing about the cover. It’s not wrapped in real bubble-wrap (like I believed) but the image of the bubble wrap is embossed and the end papers are bright red. Altogether a beautiful book.

It’s easy to see why Michel Houellebecq inspires strong emotions.  It takes a special kind of arrogance to write yourself into your own novel as a central character.  And then there’s the annoying idiosyncracies – the politically incorrect rants he seems to revel in, his love of obscure bits of information or penchant for italics (which implies an insulting lack of faith in his readers sophistication).  But perhaps most damning is the way the man writes. As if he’d met with the devil under the Arc de Triomphe and signed over his soul at the stroke of midnight.  Houellebecq is that good.  Worse yet, he knows it.

The Map and the Territory won that famous French literary prize, the Prix Goncourt and popular opinion seems to rank it as among the least offensive of Houellebacq’s novels.  It is the story of the life and career of  Jed Martin, a successful French artist who is unusual in that he works in a variety of mediums – photography, painting and video.  Jed is an artist in the vein of Howard Roark, – so intensely engaged by the process of creating that he is unable to form or maintain meaningful human relationships.  Their problem is not that they are unable to feel emotions or attachments, but that they lack any real interest in doing so.  Such is Jed’s existence until he reaches out to the French author Michel Houellebecq.  His gallery wants Houellebecq to write the program for Jed’s upcoming show, and Jed offers to paint Houellebecq’s portrait in return.  A strange intimacy (or what passes for intimacy for these two) develops between the two men.  An intimacy Jed hopes will develop into friendship.  That hope is disappointed in Part Three of the novel when Houellebecq is unexpectedly and gruesomely murdered.

A moment, please, to savor the irony of Michel Houellebecq writing a book about two men who do not play well with others.

Despite the jacket copy, The Map and the Territory is not a thriller.  Nor would I call the book “playful” (also found in the jacket copy. This is a thoughtful, intelligent novel in which a lot happens without anything seeming to .  Jed’s quiet existence and intense laser-focus on his work is completely incongruous to our current age of increasingly frenetic distractions.  He exists in an existential vacuum and over the course of his life producing only three bodies of work.  First a series of black & white still-life photographs of tools; second a series of paintings of tradesmen, which morph into portraits of celebrity businessmen and artists (including the portrait of Houellebecq and one of Jed’s father);  and finally time-lapse videos recording the disintegration of photographs exposed to the elements.  They are pictures of his friends and family.  The works of art are perhaps the most interesting things about Jed.

She looked at him again, more intently, for at least five seconds, before saying: ‘I find it very beautiful.’

She had said that simply, calmly, but with real conviction.  Incapable of finding an appropriate reply, Jed turned back towards the image.  He had to agree that he was, in fact, quite happy with it himself.  For the exhibition he had chosen a part of the Michelin map of the Creuse, which contained his grandmother’s village.  He had used a very low camera angle, at thirty degrees from the horizontal, while setting the tilt to the maximum in order to obtain a very high depth of field.  It was then, by using Photoshop layers that he had introduced the background blurring and the bluish effect on the horizon.  In the foreground were the pond at Breuil and the village of Châtelus-le-Marcheix.  Further away, the roads winding through the forest between the villages of Saint-Goussaud, Laurière and Jabreilles-les Bordes appeared like a dream territory, fairy like and inviolable.  In the back-left corner of the image, as if merging from a bank of mist, the white-and-red ribbon of the A20 motorway could still be made out clearly.

‘Do you often take photos of road maps?’

“Yes… Yes, quite often.’

‘Always Michelin?’

‘Yes.’

She pondered this before asking him: “Have you made many photos like this?’

‘Just over eight hundred.’

All of this is in direct contrast to the character Michel Houellebecq – a man who delights in random bits of information and makes desperate lunges at happiness.  On first meeting him, Jed discovers a dirty, drunken little leprechaun of a man.  Towards the end of the book, prior to his murder, Houellebecq seems to be pulling himself together.  He starts bathing, supplements his liquid diet with real food and buys a dog.  He retires to his family home in the country.  While he isn’t what I’d call a role-model, he certainly is the more entertaining character.

The first two parts of The Map and the Territory (over half the book) deal with the rise of Jed’s artistic career and his relationships.  The third part deals almost exclusively with Houellebecq’s murder and the detective assigned to the case.  The entire novel is written in the third person.  It is my favorite narrative perspective.  The first person focuses on character, second person targets the reader, but it is the third person that allows the reader to approach the author and observe him at works. It is the voice of god, a.k.a. the author. For that reason it has always seemed to me the way of telling a story that relies the least on artifice and gimmicks in order to engage readers.  And because it is less caught up with an individual character’s development, it creates the space to deal in big themes – something Houellebecq seems to delight in.  Along with a gallows humor, the author appears to be something of a nihilist.  Everything that occurs in The Map and the Territory trends towards the mercenary (regardless of characters’ intentions).  Art, love, filial relationships, murder – nothing is pure.  While this is a fascinating, beautiful and cerebral novel, it is not a particularly comforting one.

It bears mentioning that French Slate published an article about The Map and the Territory on its release, accusing Houellebecq of plagiarism.  The article showed that some of the factoids –  the mating habits of a species of ants is the example cited – are lifted almost verbatim from French Wikipedia.  Houellebecq claims that his “approach, muddling real documents and fiction” is all a part of his process and that there never an attempt to mislead readers.  I believe him.  Houellebecq is too talented a writer and the examples too prominently placed for plagiarism (if we define plagiarism as an attempt by an author to represent another’s work as his own) to be plausible.  Plus, the inference is that an author steals because he believes the plagiarized work is somehow superior to his own.  From all reports Houllebecq’s arrogance shatters that possibility.  In the English edition of the book he goes so far as to thank Wikipedia in the acknowledgements.

This, along with a long list of other controversies and accusations (pornography, racism, anti-Islamic comments, misogyny, etc.) is what makes Houllebecq a difficult person to like or admire.  Many critics seem to despise him.  Which begs the question:  Do we need to like, admire or even agree with an author in order to acknowledge his ability as a writer or to enjoy his book?  And if we enjoy the book does that somehow make us complicit in the opinions and actions, or must we be automatically sympathetic to the characters, we are reading about?  I bring these questions up in relation to Houellebecq because they are very relevant to his work – at least critics have tried to make them so.  Controversies are easy to write about at length, whereas what is there really to say about his writing?  If The Map and the Territory is representative of his other work – then it is, simply put, flawless.

Publisher: William Heinemann, London (2011)

ISBN:  978 0 434 02140 6

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The Healer: A Novel by Antti Tuomainen, translated from the original Finnish by Lola Rogers

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What makes the dystopian future described by Finnish author Antti Tuomainen  so disturbing is that it so closely resembles parts of the world we live in today.  He’s made the canny decision to dispense with futuristic tech and all the other trappings we’ve come to associate with the post-apocalypse: Mad Maxx gangs roaming a barren landscape, the rich farming the poor like domesticated cattle, the rise of the machines, etc.  None of those factor into Tuomainen’s vision for the future:  a place where we still live in houses and apartments, have jobs (if we’re lucky), call for cabs on crowded streets, shop for clothes and scan the tabloids for dirt on the latest pop sensation.

Instead he shows us how we have created the circumstances which will eventually end us.

That’s the whole problem in the first place… That everyone got to choose.  Endlessly, with no limits.  That’s why we’re here today….As if electronics wrapped in plastic or cotton irrigated with drinking water could ever be anything but a detriment, the cause of the destruction, replacing something irreplaceable with a pile of trash…

I don’t think a more frightening scenario exists.  Which is exactly what the author intends.

The Healer is set in an unspecified future where the consequences of climate change have only recently made themselves apparent – at least in the cataclysmic sense.  Resources haven’t been completely depleted, but they are running out.  Refugees are arriving in the Northern hemisphere en masse.  Finland, a country that occupies a total area of 130,596 geographic square miles (that’s 16,446 square miles less than the state of Montana), has become one giant refugee camp.  Everything is chaos.  Disease is rampant.  Food and shelter are running out.  There’s 13 wars/conflicts happening in the EU.  The reader is witnessing the breakdown of civilization.  Tuomainen has his protagonist describe evenings spent at the apartment window, sipping coffee and looking at dozens of orange pinpoints of light in the distance.  They are giant fires, built by the displaced, dotting the landscape.

Helsinki is the place where everyone is escaping to. Readers are given hints, but are for the most part left on their own to conjure the places the refugees are escaping from. We get a sense of the dire situation when the book’s hero is befriended by a cab driver, a “young North African man” named Hamid who will prove to be worth his weight in gold.

Hamid liked Finland.  Here, at least, there was some possibility of making good – he might even be able to start a family here.

I listened to his fast-flowing, broken English and watched him in profile.  A narrow, light-brown face, alert, nut-brown eyes in the rearview mirror; quick hands on the steering wheel.  Then I looked at the city flashing by, the flooded streets glistening, puddles the size of ponds, shattered windows, doors pried from their hinges, cars burned black, and people wandering in the rain.  Where I saw doom, Hamid saw hope.

It’s a slow and steady decline towards extinction. And into this environment Tuomainen has plotted a missing person case that is completely riveting.  There is no one, catastrophic, event that put us in this place. Just a series of bad decisions.

Tapani Lehtinen, the hero and narrator, isn’t a detective.  He’s a poet whose last collection was published four years earlier.  His wife, Johanna, is a journalist investigating an eco-terrorist turned serial killer known only as “The Healer”.   When the book opens she’s been missing for approximately 24 hours.  All Tapani has to begin his search with is a phone call from Johanna he recorded by mistake.  She tells him she’ll be away overnight, following a lead.  Her last words to him are: “See you tomorrow at the latest.  I love you.”

Tapani attempts to go to the police for help, even approaching an Inspector who Johanna had once helped to solve an important case.  But, like everything else, the force is in disarray.  They can’t keep up with the influx of people and crime.  Private security companies are popping up everywhere – often doing more harm than good.  Everyone with the resources to do so has fled even farther North.  In the end all the Inspector can offer Tapani is police resources:  video footage, access to information, and the occasional assist.  There’s no man-power to spare.

It turns out to be enough.  The trail Tapani follows is made up of his & Johanna’s shared and individual histories.  As the plot develops it’s close to impossible to stop reading.  Everything feels so plausible.  Each revelation becomes another piece in the natural progression of events.  As for the translation – it’s fantastic.  Whether Lola Roger has been completely faithful to the original I can’t say.  But I’ve always looked at the act of translation as being a collaboration between an author and translator – the result of which should be judged on its own merit and not just  as a variation of a form (bear with me: I’m getting a little Platonic here).  The English translation of The Healer  is a fully realized and beautifully written book in and of itself.

The ending, particularly, is brilliant.  I’ve seen it described as an “open ending” in some reviews, which to me implies that there might be a sequel.  That would be a shame.  Without giving anything away (brief tangent: did anyone else read Joyce Carol Oates NYRB reviews of two of Derek Raymond’s “Factory” novels/mysteries?  She gives away the killer for BOTH books!  WHO does THAT????!) the ending is perfectly in tune with the world Tuomainen describes.  In addition, it structurally reflects the novel’s over-arcing message and is a clever piece of writing.  Any other direction he might have gone in would have felt contrived and cliché.  Instead, it is the best part of the book.  No small compliment when describing a book this good.  Like Eliot, Tuomainen sees the power in allowing the world to end.  Not with a bang but a whimper.

The Healer is Antti Tuomainen’s third novel.  It won the Clue Award for the Best Finnish Crime Novel of 2011 and was subsequently translated into 26 different languages.

Publisher:  Henry Holt and Company, New York (2013)
ISBN:  978 0 8050 9554 8

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The Sultan of Byzantium by Selçuk Altun (translated from Turkish by Clifford Endres & Selhan Endres)

Sultan Poster.jpgIf you’re a fan of The DaVinci Code, The Historian and other novels that combine the conspiracy theory, mystery and thriller genres – then there’s a spot for The Sultan of Byzantium on your bookshelf.  And even if you aren’t a Dan Brown fan (like me) that shouldn’t stop you from becoming a Selçuk Altun fan.  Smart, funny, entertaining…The Sultan of Byzantium is what a Summer read should be.

The narrator (and hero) is a young Turkish professor living in Istanbul.  He cuts a remarkably debonaire, Cary Grant-esque figure.  A confirmed bachelor, he spends his Summers traveling the world, climbing mountains and generally living life large.  He has a way with the ladies.  Altun quickly moves through his hero’s background information – a strange, but genuinely happy childhood despite his parents divorcing and his father disappearing into the ether – and moves right into the main story.   Sometime in his early thirties he receives a letter summoning him to a mysterious meeting with three men who represent a shadowy organization known as Nomo.  They explain to him that he is the direct descendant of the last ruler of the Byzantine empire.  Making him the new Emperor of Byzantium-in-exile.  But in order to prove that he is truly “the one” he must first complete a series of tests.  On successful completion of these he will be given a final task, one left in Nomo’s keeping 500 years earlier by Constantine XI. (Yes, the man himself).  Oh, and as a side perk, he’ll gain access to the sizable wealth of the empire.

The tasks themselves aren’t particularly intriguing.  Altun doesn’t have Brown’s affinity for puzzles.  Fortunately the fact that the spotlight is so obviously trained on Byzantine history guarantees that this weakness doesn’t impact the story in the least.  As our hero and his entourage move from one historic location to another the plot unfolds very naturally.  In fact, it evolves at such a leisurely pace that you don’t even notice that the entire time Altun has been carefully moving all his pieces into place.  The denouement is skillfully executed.  And there’s the sense that all the while he’s been distracting you – that this was Altun’s plan the entire time – with a dry, subtle humor.

Selçuk Altun has a tongue-in-cheek narrative style reminiscent of Ian Fleming’s 007 novels.  When his hero asks the representatives how Nomo can be so sure that he is the one they have been waiting for, the following is put forward as proof of his nobility –

“… Despite family difficulties, you did not turn into a problem child.  You were a hard-working, honest and popular student.  You continued your success in some of the most prominent universities in the world.  You’re an intellectual and art-lover who can speak nine languages.  You didn’t try to sneak out of your compulsory military service.  You could enter the political life, if the conditions were favorable, of any country whose passport you carried.  You’ve got too much honor to take orders from other people, and too much pride to flirt with the girls.  You go to bed with two women at a time; if you happen to come eye-to-eye with a lion it turns into a housecat.  Your air of mystery is respectable.  Sir, you are the emperor that Byzantium-in-exile has been awaiting for the last 555 years!”

He also loves small children, rescues orphans, honors his grandmother and plays a killer chess game.

If you aren’t paying attention you might miss it… the underlying irreverence. I didn’t start to appreciate it until halfway through.  But it was the satirical voice of The Sultan of Byzantium that won me over.

Part of that irreverence takes the form of cameos Selçuk Altun makes in his own story.  Very post-modern.  And so frequently, and inexplicably, that even his narrator has cause to comment on it.  After meeting Selçuk Altun at a party he muses “It was odd that this writer, whose works I never read, was manipulating me as if I were one of his characters.”  And later, in a completely superfluous but utterly charming moment:

I went out and bought a suit and tie for the meeting at the Hackett, simply because it was my father’s favorite namesake.  On my return I ran into Selçuk Altun and his wife getting off the elevator in the lobby.  It was certainly a surprise.  I raised my Hackett shopping bags in humorous homage, and wondered about the possibility of seeing him as a Nomo member.

The translators, Clifford and Selhan Endres, do a wonderful job of capturing the author’s tone.  This book, though, is slow to start and has a short slump in the middle.  (All that Byzantine history, fascinating as it is, can get a little tangled.)  But the translation becomes stronger and the prose richer as the book progresses.  So while The Sultan of Byzantium isn’t a perfect book,  it is an  exciting one.  The writing of Selçuk Altun intrigues me.  Telegram has already published two of his earlier novels:  Songs My Mother Never Taught Me and (also translated by Clifford and Selhan Endres) Many and Many A Year Ago.  Both appear to be thrillers, set in Turkey, in the same vein as The Sultan of Byzantium.  I’ve already downloaded samples of both.

Publisher:  London, Telegram (2012)
ISBN:  978 1 85659 148 8

 

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3 Strange Tales by Ryunosuke Akutagawa (translated from the original Japanese by Glenn Anderson)

https://i0.wp.com/d.gr-assets.com/books/1355905383l/15036531.jpgMcNally Jackson in NYC is one of my favorite bookshops.  If you’re interested in translations it’s a great place to browse for new authors.  On my last visit, inspired by Yoka Ogawo’s Revenge, I headed straight for the Japanese shelf.  What I discovered was a sweet little book by a publisher I’d never heard of:  One Peace Books.

Established in 2006 One Peace Books focuses on Japanese graphic fiction.  Visit their website and you’ll find a catalog filled with graphic novels, manga and Japanese literature.  3 Strange Tales by Ryunosuke Akutagawa is part of their Modern Japanese Classics series.  Akutagawa is a legend in his home country, so much so that one of Japan’s top literary prizes is named after him.  Born in 1892, he died in 1927 from an overdose.

(In order to provide a little context, consider that James Joyce’s Ulysses was published in 1922.  The Sound & the Fury by William Faulkner in 1929.  Virginia Woolf wrote Mrs. Dalloway in 1925.  The four stories collected in 3 Strange Tales were originally published between 1914-1922, predating all three Western works).

The three main stories in the collection:  Rashomon; A Christian Death; and Agni all have fairly standard, morality-driven plots that reminded me of the kinda of fiction found in magazines back when magazines still regularly published fiction.  Rashomon stands out – a servant left alone and unemployed in a city  decimated by disease.  The description of the protagonist borders on the grotesque.  He constantly fiddles “with an enormous pimple that had recently appeared on his right cheek…” Perhaps a symptom of the plague?  Seeking shelter from the rain he climbs into the guard tower of the Rashomon Gate.  What he finds when he reaches the top moves the story towards the macabre.

Whether because of Akutagawa’s writing or the translator’s art, Rashomon is surprisingly modern.  It reads like the  script for a graphic novel. The action lends itself to (might even be improved by) being divided into individual panels and illustrated.

The other two stories are entertaining, but not particularly ground-breaking.  The monk in A Christian Death is the victim of libel, which leads to his martyrdom.  In Agni a girl is enslaved by a witch.   And while the prose is modern, it’s also awkward, and can be saccharine in tone.

In the darkened room, the Indian woman opened her magic tome on the desk, and began chanting a spell.  Soon, exotic and ancient writings appeared, wavering, in the light of the burning incense.  Elen, or rather Taeko, dressed in her Chinese clothes, sat in a chair before the woman.  Had her letter reached Endo?  She was sure that she had seen him outside, but what if she had been wrong?  The very thought of it caused her knees to tremble.  But if she showed her concern the woman would see through her plan to escape from the den of black magic.  So she pressed her hands together to keep them from shaking and waited, breathlessly, for her chance to act out the possession.

The bonus story, In a Grove, is by far the best – and has me looking forward to reading more books by Ryunosuke Akutagawa.  The narrative is divided into 7 parts; each told in the first person; each contributing a portion of information about the circumstance of a samurai’s murder.  Akutagawa slowly let’s his story unfold from multiple perspectives – some eyewitnesses, some acquaintances, even the samurai’s wife – culminating in the testimony of the murdered man.  Some of the narrators are unreliable, whether outright liars or just misinformed.  The structure is unusual, the plot twists unexpected and the ending a surprise… one I enjoyed.   And while the whole collection didn’t completely satisfy, it did pique my interest in other volumes in this Modern Japanese Classics series.

Publisher:  One Peace Books, New York (2012)

ISBN:  978 1 935548 12 6

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