No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Monday, July 30, 2012

2012/31: The Hurricane Party -- Klas Östergren

Regardless of how you look at the world, and no matter what you choose to call the powers that be, you can never ignore what is called the ‘magic of events’. It’s part of the human equation, the rhythm of the heart, the pulse of the narrative, the way things take shape whenever a story begins; expectations are awakened and with them the sense that at some time the whole thing will have to come to an end. [location 51]

Another Canongate Myth volume based on Norse mythology, The Hurricane Party takes as its starting-point the Lokasenna, in which Loki slanders the gods. (But is it slander if it's true?)

The world has been ravaged by pandemics, climate change and perhaps war. Hanck Orn counts himself fortunate to live in the city, ruled though it is by a gangsterish mob known only as the Clan. The wastelands beyond the city, outside the border, harbour many dangers, not least the sick and / or lawless folk who live there. Hanck used to work as an insurance adjuster, before the Clan did away with the Administration -- law, order, bureaucracy, society -- in favour of its own protection racket. One of Hanck's investigations out there in the wider world, some twenty years before, brought him his son Toby.

Now Hanck leads a slow and solitary life, restoring antique typewriters and listening to the long, low, unpredictable tones of the Organ. He misses his son constantly. Toby, a chef who never saw a cut of meat during his training, is working at an exclusive restaurant in the archipelago, catering a gala evening for the Clan.

But then two men in lavender overalls come to the door with the news that Toby is dead.

Hanck refuses to accept their story of a heart attack. He travels to the island where the Clan have gathered, and meets a young woman, Bora, who tells him what really befell his son. Toby simply sneezed; but he sneezed at the wrong time, and Loki ... well, Loki took exception.

Bora tells Hanck how the gala evening went downhill from there: a 'hurricane party', with Loki finally showing his contempt for the Clan. She tells other stories about the Clan, tales of violence and deceit intended to warn Hanck that revenge isn't an option. That's their world. Blood in the brooks, blood in the dew, blood in the frost and blood in the snow. [location 2141]. And she tells Hanck to seek Loki at the Colonial Club.

But there's no sign of the incomprehensible, unpredictable Loki. Instead, Hanck's drawn into conversation with an ageing hooker who gives him a letter addressed to the head of the Clan, the Old Man himself ...

Östergren's riff on the Eddas is inventive, bleak and suffused with dark humour. (The Hurricane Party can be read as post-apocalyptic SF, as well as an exploration of myth.) The digressions into 'stories about the Clan' can feel irrelevant, but I like the way Östergren portrays mythic elements (Loki's shapechanging, Fenrir, Helheim) as a part of the mundane world: it's not quite magic realism, more an underlying current of weirdness.

It's hard to like any of the characters in this novel -- especially the gods, who are credibly petty, brutal and bloody as the worst of the sagas depict them. Hanck, the innocent caught up in the end times, when everything's falling apart, is sympathetic, if not exactly likeable: by the end of the novel he's striving towards redemption in his own way. And if love can save the world, it can also end it:

...the world would continue to exist until love was explained. The destroyer of the world would lie bound in his cave as long as love remained a mystery. Or at least until someone with an open heart felt capable of forgiving him, with sincere and genuine love. [location 4172]

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

2012/30: Ragnarok: The End of the Gods -- A S Byatt

In the beginning was the tree. The stone ball rushed through emptiness. Under the crust was fire. Rocks boiled, gases seethed. Blebs burst through the crust. Dense salt water clung to the rolling ball. Slime slid on it and in the slime shapes shifted. Any point on a ball is the centre and the tree was at the centre. It held the world together, in the air, in the earth, in the light, in the dark, in the mind. [location 120]
The thin child (never named, though clearly Byatt herself) is growing up during the Second World War. Her father is absent, fighting in the war: she doesn't believe he will ever return. More than anything she fears boredom. Then she acquires a copy of Asgard and the Gods (Wilhelm Wagner's massive 1880 compendium of Norse mythology 'for boys and girls'). Through the legends therein, and the equally implausible tales she hears at Sunday School and reads in Bunyan, the thin child learns to understand the world in terms of the wolves in the mind, the ineluctable surge of story, the way the gods hold the world together against chaos. ("The words men used to describe the gods were the words they used for fetters or bonds". [location 481])

The result is an inventive retelling of Ragnarok, the Norse cosmology of the end of the world (and the gods). Like several other modern authors -- Diana Wynne Jones and Joanne Harris, to name but two -- Byatt is fascinated by, and sympathetic to, the ambiguous Loki. There's joy in her descriptions of the Wolf-father and his child, in her depiction of Loki's interest in everything, the way he's captured while distracted by the form and topography of a net, the chaos (flames, waterfalls) in which he dwells.

Byatt's perspective on the myth isn't simple revisionism, though. She braids and contrasts the grim and bloody landscape of the myths with the thin child's explorations in the idyllic English countryside. The thin child's perceptions are coloured by the war that suffuses her world; trying to balance the 'good' Germans of the stories with the enemy her father is fighting, she reenvisions German bomber squadrons as the Wild Hunt ("if any hunter dismounted, he crumbled to dust" [381]). Byatt invents Rándrasill, an oceanic analogue of the world-tree Yggdrasil. And she regenders Jörmungandr, the Midgard Serpent, as female; not a monster but a victim, an innocent and exuberant creature driven to madness and destruction by Thor and Odin's cruelties.

I could quote whole pages of Ragnarok for the sheer beauty of Byatt's prose; I could cherrypick phrases that resonate, observations about the nature of myth, parallels between the world of the gods and the world in which the thin child reads their stories. Ragnarok works on a number of levels: a retelling of well-known stories; a questioning of the gods' morality; an exploration of the nature of myth; a reverie on a child's experience of the Norse sagas; a cautionary tale of ecological catastrophe and the human urge to destructiveness. Byatt's afterword (some of which also appears in a 2011 article for the Guardian, here) discusses these elements, but seems superfluous after the depth and passion of the novel itself.

All there was was a flat surface of black liquid glinting in the small pale points of light that still came through the starholes. A few gold chessmen floated and bobbed on the dark ripples... The black thing in her brain and the dark water on the page were the same thing, a form of knowledge. This is how myths work. They are things, creatures, stories, inhabiting the mind. They cannot be explained and do not explain; they are neither creeds nor allegories. The black was now in the thin child’s head and was part of the way she took in every new thing she encountered. [1210]

Thursday, July 05, 2012

2012/29: Cradle Song -- Robert Edric

... nothing was ever wasted, however incidental or inconsequential it might at first appear. The important clues were never big or obvious: you were never going to be pointed towards them by people who didn't want you to see them. A thing you discovered for yourself, however small, and however quickly you might afterwards disregard it, was always something worth discovering. Something you were told or pointed towards was just another line in a maze. (p. 94)

Private detective Leo Rivers, whose old boss John Maxwell has recently retired, is employed by a wealthy businessman to re-investigate the murder of the man's teenaged daughter Nicola. (Several other girls were killed or went missing around the same time.) Two mysterious figures, Smart and Finch, are interested in Rivers too: they want him to stir the situation up in a way that Maxwell would never have done. Thing is, Nicola's murder isn't exactly an unsolved case. DCI Sullivan (retired) is still proud of having caught and imprisoned the man he believes responsible -- photographer Martin Roper, languishing in prison, who's indicated that he's prepared to finally tell the truth about what really happened to the teenage girls he photographed and filmed.

It's not a pleasant story: quite aside from that, I didn't find it an enjoyable read. I didn't engage with Rivers, had no sense of him as a person despite (because of) his first-person narration. He lives for his work, and doesn't seem to have anyone or anything that he cares about. We're told that two of the other characters are his friends, but one of them double-crosses him and the other seems to have quite a different agenda. Rivers doesn't seem to notice anything around him, unless it's pertinent to the case. There's no evidence that he's emotionally involved with the case or with his client: he's always playing games, explaining what he hopes an apparently-random remark will achieve, making guesses. And there's an undercurrent of misogyny that reminds me of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (original title 'The Men Who Hate Women'). The women in this novel (except three teenage girls in a scene-setting prologue) are victims, liars or sexual predators.

The whole novel feels like an exercise in restraint. There's some fine writing, and the bleakness matches the setting (north-east coast of England) very nicely. But I found little to like, and I doubt I'll read more of Edric's crime fiction.

Monday, July 02, 2012

2012/28: The Other Wind -- Ursula Le Guin

"I think ... that when I die, I can breathe back the breath that made me live. I can give back to the world all that I didn't do. All that I might have been and couldn't be. All the choices I didn't make. All the things I lost and spent and wasted. I can give them back to the world. To the lives that haven't been lived yet. That will be my gift back to the world that gave me the life I did live, the love I loved, the breath I breathed." (p. 231)

Alder is a sorcerer, recently widowed, whose dreams are haunted by the unquiet dead. When he applies to the School on Roke, they direct him to a small house on Gont. There he meets the former Archmage, Ged, tending his farm and missing his own wife Tenar, who is in Havnor -- the city at the centre of the world -- with their adopted daughter Tehanu. Tenar counsels both the king, Lebannen, and his bride-to be, Seserakh, on their forthcoming marriage: but her conversations with Seserakh are not limited to etiquette or the importance of learning the Hardic tongue. Tenar, after all, was once Arha: and in talking over the rituals and folklore of her lost homeland, she and Seserakh uncover traces of an ancient myth about dragons and men. Tehanu leads the king and his courtiers to a parlay with the dragons themselves, hoping to resolve whatever has caused dragons to attack farms and homesteads (though not humans) out in the Western Reach.

And on Gont, Alder dreams of leaning across the wall in the dry land to kiss his dead wife.

Everything comes together, draconian anger and the whispers of the dead; Alder's nightmares, Ged's past, the duty that chokes Lebannen.
The Other Wind brings together themes from Tehanu (dragons and humans, dragons as humans) and The Farthest Shore (the wall in the dry land that separates the living from the dead). It feels, though, like a modulation, a variation on the Earthsea of the first trilogy.

Tehanu, in some editions subtitled The Last Earthsea Novel, was a powerful and troubling book that I'm glad was only published in 1990: I'd have found some of the events and concepts very difficult to deal with as a child. The Other Wind is less turbulent, less painful, but I can't yet decide whether it makes a lie out of some aspects of the first three novels.

A beautiful, philosophical read, full of moments like raindrops: but behind the quiet glow and simple language, there's a lurking paradigm shift.
"Death is the bond-breaker."
"Then why do the dead not die?" (p. 188)