Topic: Book Reviews

Some Letters Never Sent by Neil Curry

The conceit of this collection is that it is composed of a series of letters to various correspondents, contemporary and historical, real and fictional. Some are bitter: Curry’s dispatch to Sir John Barrow (1764-1848), for example, acidly catalogues the number of young explorers sent to their deaths by this member of the Admiralty in search of a ‘northwest passage’ through the Arctic. Others, like the one addressed to one ‘Timothy the Tortoise’ owned by by the eighteenth century naturalist Gilbert White, are humorous, finding the poet hoping that said reptile is ‘Under the broad beans perhaps, or if you’re Really lucky and nobody’s noticed as yet, Happily chomping away among the strawberry beds.’

Though this is a densely allusive collection, Curry doesn’t have much truck with the pomposity of ‘literariness’: to Euripides he confides that he ‘couldn’t stand The way that you, and others, had been Classic-ised. It was the beggars bollocks they threatened To rip off, not his vital organs.’ Yet if what unites these poems is a thread of wit, it has quieter moments too: an address to the novelist Angela Carter manages to be at once unflinchingly honest and sad; a letter to the poet’s younger self reflects movingly on what is gained with time, but also with what is lost.

The Beggar & The Hare by Tuomas Kyrö

Smuggled to Finland by a ruthless but oddly bureaucratic criminal organisation, Vatenescu, a Romanian construction worker, is soon put to work as a beggar on the streets of Helsinki. The terms of his contract are punitive: ’75% to me, 25% to you’, as his gangmaster, Yegor Kugar has it; yet an incident involving an unexpected feast and a wounded rabbit puts an end to Vatenescu’s contract, and inadvertently, to Kugar’s as well.

Pursued by both the state and by the criminals that smuggled him, Vatenscu (and his rabbit) find themselves driven across Finland. Yet despite the fact that they are outcasts on the run, somehow their luck always seems to keep them coming out on top, and on their way they encounter restauranteurs, soldiers, environmental activists, magicians, and eventually the president himself. As much an exploration of Finland’s relationship with its neighbours and of the nature of European capitalism as it is a witty and entertaining picaresque, The Beggar & The Hare is an assured and beguilingly-told modern fable.

Sicilian Uncles by Leonardo Sciascia

The four novellas collected in Sicilian Uncles each tell a story in which larger events have concrete impacts upon the inhabitants of rural Sicily. So the arrival of allied forces in Italy at the end of the Second World War has nearly as much effect on the young narrator of the opening story as the arrival of his domineering emigre aunt, whose scheming puts to a halt his lucrative (but exploitative) business selling stolen cigarettes to his uncle. The second story, ‘The Death of Stalin’, charts the moral contortions that a loyal member of the Italian Communist party must put himself through in order to come to some acceptance of the great man’s crimes.

Later stories touch upon the Sicilian revolution of 1848 and the Spanish Civil War, and each deals with a moment of betrayal or disillusionment. Yet though the matters that the stories concern themselves with are often weighty, Sciascia’s strengths are his lightness of touch and the sympathy and humour with which he draws his characters. A superb collection in its own right and a fine introduction to the author’s work.

Rabbit Back Literature Society by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen

Ella, a teacher in the small Finnish town of Rabbit Back, discovers that something strange is happening to the books in the local library. The apparently normal copy of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment has been re-written so its protagonist is shot, not imprisoned; Aslan has killed Jadis in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, and a number of other works have been similarly altered. When challenged the librarian is evasive, yet it is with Ella’s admission to the secretive Rabbit Back Literature Society, a group of writers trained from childhood by the famous author Laura White, that the plot really thickens. What follows is less a process of Ella uncovering the truth than it is the unveiling of a succession of absences: who was the missing tenth member of the society, and what happened to him? And what has become of Laura White?

The star turn of this novel is the town of Rabbit Back itself and its bizarre yet uncomfortably believable inhabitants: lost in the snow somewhere between Angela Carter and Italo Calvino, it’s a place where the borders between reality and fiction seem disconcertingly porous. Superbly written (and admirably translated by Lola M. Rogers) and taking risks that in less skilful hands would not pay off, this exploration of the act of storytelling is as chilling as it is beguiling.

The Spectre of Alexander Wolf by Gaito Gazdanov, trans. by Bryan Karetnyk

Dustjacket: The spectre of alexander wolfA man is haunted by a memory from his youth: fighting for the White Army during the Russian revolution, he shoots a man in self defence and leaves him to die in the forest. Years later as an émigré in Paris, he finds in a volume of short stories a description of the incident, though told from the perspective of the man whom he thinks he has killed. How can this story exist? And who is it who has written it?

So begins this slim but wonderfully realised novel. Gazdanov’s narrator is a freelance hack whose Paris is experienced principally in darkness, populated by exiles and criminals; as he searches for the face from his memory, the city itself seems to shift under his gaze. Though the novel’s plot borrows heavily from detective fiction, the philosophical ruminations of its unnamed protagonist and the themes of identity and loss that it explores brings it closer to European modernist writing. Most of all, however, it is the novel’s images that are its most luminous aspect: a riderless white horse in the summer heat of the Russian steppes; a fighter suffering in an ill-matched and brutal boxing match; a couple sleeping in a broken-down car on the edge of Paris in thunderstorm. Puzzling, enigmatic and beautifully translated by Bryan Karetnyk, The Spectre of Alexander Wolf is an elegant and finely poised thriller.