The Book of Chocolate Saints – Jeet Thayil


You’re a critic. There’s no worse thing that can be said about a man.

As I was working my way through Jeet Thayil’s second novel, “The Book of Chocolate Saints”, I was wondering why the publicity and reviews have been a little thin on the ground. In fact, I have seen one short review in “The Guardian”. The quote above appears as the novel comes to a close, a slap in the face for critics.

When Jeet Thayil exploded onto the mainstream literary stage with his debut novel “Narcopolis” his reputation as a hard living former drug addict seemed to overshadow his achievements as a poet and novelist. “Narcopolis” was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2012 and subsequently won the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature in 2013 and most reflections, critiques of the book seemed to focus on the persona of the writer, the drug elements and less on the tale of Bombay. For example, does anybody mention the novel’s opening and closing word is “Bombay”?

“The Book of Chocolate Saints” is not going to change Jeet Thayil’s hard playing reputation, it is probably only going to enhance it, merely through the seedier elements. However this is a multi multi layered work, running at close to 500 large pages, it is a complex story of the fictional poet and painter Newton Francis Xavier, an alcoholic, womaniser, a character who is highly intelligent, famous but with no self-control. It is also the story of Dismas, the young admiring writer who is compiling a biography of Newton (or Xavier, or simply X), in fact two books “two hundred and fifty pages of heft”, are we reading those two books? Or maybe  it is the story of Goody Lol, Newton’s latest partner, or possibly the “The Hung Realists” a group of Bombay poets, Newton being the co-editor of an anthology called “The Hung Realists: A Subaltern Manifesto”. Or possibly this is a tale of the “Chocolate Saints”, dark skinned Saints who throughout the ages have been redefined as fair skinned with blue eyes, this includes Jesus. Surely it is also an homage to Roberto Bolaño, the similarities to “The Savage Detectives” are too obvious to ignore, fragmentary, an alter-ego (Dismas is Thayill?), the multiple character narrations and simply the celebration of a literary movement, here we have the “Hung Realists”, Bolaño with the “visceral realists”.

Structurally the book is presented in alternating parts, the first, after a short Prologue, consisting of interviews with numerous characters conducted by Dismas and the next a narrative of Newton Francis Xavier’s life, alternating back to interviews and so forth. A novel presented in a series of fragments, it is not linear, although you can follow the exposes quite simply. But it is not simply the narrative plotline that is the attraction here.

Poets Man! They’re the same all over. Mendicants, martyrs, lapsed monks convinced the world owes them an explanation or an apology or a meal, wine included. But fuck the dumb shit. I tell you this, if you’re planning a revolution or founding a new religion go to the poets. Don’t waste your time with fucking scriveners. Go to the source, the bards. At least you can count on them to be true to their essential nature. And what is this nature? Ruthlessness, I say! Enlist the poets and expect blood. There will be a lot of it. Enlist the poets and stay away from the novelists because novelists are feckless. They have no feck at all. They are yes-men hungry for approval and patronage, always looking out for their own interests. As for playwrights, all they do is talk, talk, talk about the revolution and social justice, women’s empowerment, humanism, anarchism, but it never goes anywhere because that that’s all it is, big talk, back talk, chitchat, gossip. They’re good at it because that’s how they gather material. When it comes to putting words into action? They’ll be the first to disappear. You will also come across scriptwriters and screenplay doctors. Be warned. They live in their own reality and it rarely coincides with anyone else’s. I advise you to tread carefully with those bastards. Walk among them as if you’re in a den of goddamn vipers. Count on nothing and you’ll be okay. The only ones you can trust are the short-story writers because they’re like the poets in at least one respect. They shoot their shot in one go and this leads to an understanding of luck and discipline. They learn early that discipline lies in waiting and allowing the circumstances for luck to arise. The point I am trying to make is that poets are born with certain unenviable traits. For example, paranoia. For example, they admire self-sabotage and the perverse. And for a last example, they are born with a capacity for cruelty, followed by and infinite capacity for remorse. (pp23-24)

A work that every few pages throws a new revelation, or a quotable quote, right at you, for example Dismas, low class, low caste is in the USA, of course he is displaced, what does he do for acceptance? Consumerism?

Two weeks later, with his first paycheque in hand, Dismas went to the Macy’s flagship at Herald Square and bought a pair of premium wheat nubuck Tims for $189.99 and a Kangol Two-Tone 504 for $39.99. He wore the cap back to front so the logo would face the world. He packed his Converses in a Macy’s bad and wore the Tims out of the store. He picked up the new Alicia Keys and a portable CD player shaped like a frisbee. All the way home he noticed others like himself, recognisably set apart by the bags they caried from various retail giants. The young father in baggy jeans and white T-shirt who proudly carried purchases from The Gap, Urban Outfitters, and Calvin Klein; the elegant older lady with the distinctive Barney’s bag; the couple with matching sets of Bed, Bath & Beyond. He was one among them, an extended family on a weekend outing, people from all kinds of ethnic and economic backgrounds bound together by the same great yearning. With his first substantial act of shopping since arriving in New York he felt American at last. Nothing else mattered, not his past, not his caste, not the weight of his degraded history. In this great country the only caste marks were the brand names you accessorised. (pp82-83)

It is these moments of clarity that keep drawing you back into the work. The controversy of 9/11 also presents itself in a rumbling distorted presentation, the impact on Indians, Sikh’s mistaken for Muslims, is one of racist payback and revenge killings, the fear of those marginalised groups in the USA at that time being masterfully captured, and although this is fiction, you feel the opinions of Newton will rile quite a few readers.

You are an American with a job on Wall Street and an apartment in Park Slope. People give you their money and you knead it like dough: you supersize it. You run in the park in a warm-up jacket with headphones strapped to your arm. You don’t take sugar in your coffee. You don’t eat white bread or potatoes. You don’t drink beer. You have a body mass index calculator on your computer and it tells you your weight, real and ideal, in relation to your height. You take your coffee black. In your office there is a leather couch and two leather armchairs and a framed lithograph of the Brooklyn Dodgers signed and numbered by the artist. You are an American: a New Yorker: a Brooklynite. Then the towers come down and you find yourself on a plane headed west. It is 2003, wartime in American. You have to be wearing a turban and sitting on a place to Arizona via Texas to understand the meaning of this. (p127)

This is a confronting work, poverty, sodomy, rape, drug abuse, flow in and out of the storyline. In one beautifully constructed section Goody Lol tries heroin for the first time and the text becomes more garbled and slowly disintegrates in front of your eyes.

However it is not all horror, there are some wonderfully humorous lines, for example;

The year I’m talking about is 1996. I remember because of the music, angst-in-my-pants from North America. Bands named after food items, pumpkins and honey and jam, suicidal white boys trying on grime like a flannel shirt. (p224)

This book is an inadvertent lesson in how not to write.

Full of digressions, this homage is full of tortured souls, poets, painters, writers, the fictional blending with the factual, there is a large powerful section where Jeet Thayil lists writers who have committed suicide. Where was Eduardo Leve? However you could spend a lifetime just reading the works of the writers Jeet Thayil has referenced here, let alone all the other authors and poets chronicled throughout.

In certain ways the lives of the poets and the lives of the saints are similar: the solitary travails, the epiphanic awakening and early actualisation, the thwarting and the mercy, the small rewards, the false starts, the workaday miracles, the joyous visions and fearful hallucinations, the flagellation of the flesh and the lonely difficult deaths. (p355)

It is the “Chocolate Saints” always hovering in the background, the wrongly treated, originally dark skinned these “Saints” are now known as fair skinned, and it is Newton Francis Xavier who is going to bring their true heritage and tales to our attention, through his artwork and his poetry. Is his name Francis Xavier a co-incidence? Francis Xavier was “the patron saint of wanderers without destination”… “a small exhausted dark-skinned man”.

This novel charts the “unmapped world of Indian poetry, a world known only unto itself.” The listing of numerous real Indian poets is phenomenal, for example there is a passing reference to Lawrence Bantleman, a young poet who gave up his art and died young. If you Google him you will find no information about his life, but you will find his poems.

Covering displacement, artistic creation, political motivation, caste politics, race, skin colour, the fringes of society, perversion and so much more, Jeet Thayil has created a vibrant homage to Indian poetry and forgotten Eastern Saints. The similarities to Bolaño are obvious, however I don’t see that as a bad thing. I’d wager the author couldn’t care less either, that persona preceding him!!

If the Man Booker Prize judges show some fortitude and reward writing that challenges you, that tries new things, then we will be hearing a lot more about this book when the long and shortlists are announced later this year. If they go with their standard safe, non-disruptive fare then maybe this book will become one of those obscure works rarely referenced, rarely read, and that would be upsetting.

A revelation, with disruptive and thought provoking exposés throughout, you can’t go many pages without something gripping you and tossing you out of your daily slumber. Great to see poets, by trade, shaking up the literary world.

…he would make his subject a window from which to view a broken society and a vanquished literature.


NSW Premier’s Literary Awards 2018 Shortlists

nsw-premiers-awards-2018This morning the 2018 New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards shortlists were announced. There are a raft of awards with varying amounts of Prizemoney on offer. Winners will be announced on 30 April, judges for each award are hard to work out as the whole lot of them are listed in alphabetical order, without the category they are judging.

Here are the shortlists, with the prizemoney listed for each award.

The Christina Stead Prize ($40,000) is offered for a book of fiction

“Common People” by Tony Birch
“Seabirds Crying in the Harbour Dark” by Catherine Cole
“Pulse Points: Stories” by Jennifer Down
“The Book of Dirt” by Bram Presser
“The Restorer” by Michael Sala
“Taboo” by Kim Scott

The Douglas Stewart Prize ($40,000) is for a prose work other than a work of fiction

“Victoria: The Woman Who Made the Modern World” by Julia Baird
“’A passion for exploring new countries’ Matthew Finders & George Bass” by Josephine Bastian
“The Enigmatic Mr Deakin” by Judith Brett
“Passchendaele: Requiem for Doomed Youth” by Paul Ham
“The Green Bell: A Memoir of Love, Madness and Poetry” by Paul Keogh
“The Boy Behind the Curtain” by Tim Winton

The Kenneth Slessor Prize ($30,000) is offered to a poet for a book of collected poems or for a single poem of substantial length published in book form.

“Archipelago” by Adam Aitken
“Euclid’s Dog: 100 algorithmic poems” by Jordie Albiston
“Bone Ink” by Rico Craig (my review & interview with the poet at the link)
“Argosy” by Bella Li
“Captive and Temporal” by Nguyễn Tiên Hoàng
“The Wild Houses” by Omar Sakr

The Ethel Turner Prize ($30,000) is offered for a work of fiction, non-fiction or poetry written for young people of secondary school level

“In The Dark Spaces” by Cally Black
“The Blue Cat” by Ursula Dubosarsky
“The One That Disappeared” by Zana Fraillon
“A Shadow’s Breath” by Nicole Hayes
“The Build-Up Season” by Megan Jacobson
“Ballad for a Mad Girl” by Vikki Wakefield

The Patricia Wrightson Prize ($30,000) is offered for a work of fiction, non-fiction or poetry written for children up to secondary school level

“The Patchwork Bike” by Maxine Beneba Clarke and illustrated by Van T Rudd
“The Elephants” by Peter Carnavas
“Blossom” by Tasmin Janu
“Figgy Takes the City” by Tasmin Janu
“How to Bee” by Bren MacDibble
“The Sorry Tale of Fox and Bear” by Margrete Lamond and illustrated by Heather Vallance

The Nick Enright Prize ($30,000) is offered for a play or a work of music drama given its first production in Australia between 1 October 2015 and 30 September 2016

“The Sound of Waiting” by Mary Anne Butler
“Rice” by Michele Lee
“Black is the New White” by Nakkiah Lui
“Mark Colvin’s Kidney” by Tommy Murphy
“Little Emperors” by Lachlan Philpott
“The Real and Imagined History of the Elephant Man” by Tom Wright

The Betty Roland Prize ($30,000) is offered for the screenplay of a feature-length fiction film, for the script of a documentary film, for the script of a play or documentary for radio, or for the script of a television program (whether fiction or non-fiction)

“Deep Water: The Real Story” by Amanda Blue and Jacob Hickey
“Top of the Lake: China Girl, Series 2 Episode 4 ‘Birthday’” by Jane Campion and Gerard Lee
“Sweet Country” by Steven McGregor and David Tranter
“Seven Types of Ambiguity, Episode 2 ‘Alex’” by Jacquelin Perske
“Please Like Me, Series 4 Episode 5 ‘Burrito Bowl’” by Josh Thomas, Thomas Ward and Liz Doran

The Multicultural NSW Award ($20,000) – criteria is quite substantial, if you’re interested you can read about it here

“No More Boats” by Felicity Castagna
“The Permanent Resident” by Roanna Gonsalves
“Dark Convicts” by Judy Johnson
“The Family Law, Series 2 Episode 4” by Nejamin Law and Kirsty Fisher
“Down the Hume” by Peter Polites
“Quicksilver” by Nicholas Rothwell

The Indigenous Writers’ Prize ($30,000) – offered biennially.

“Finding Eliza: Power and Colonial Storytelling” by Larissa Behrendt
“Common People by Tony Birch
“Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms” by Anita Heiss
“The Drover’s Wife” by Leah Purcell
“Taboo” by Kim Scott

The UTS Glenda Adams Award ($5,000) is for a published book of fiction written by an author who has not previously published a book-length work of narrative fiction or narrative non-fiction. There is no shortlist, the winner is announced on 30 April 2018

Both the NSW Premier’s Translation Prize and the Multicultural NSW Early Career Translator Prize are awarded biennially and will be awarded in 2019.

I will attempt to get to all of the poetry titles before the announcement of the winner, no promises though, my backlogs are horrendous!!!


The House of Ulysses – Julián Ríos (translated by Nick Caistor)


A fiction about a fiction!

Author Julián Ríos, in an interview published on the Dalkey Archive website, when asked about his influences, spoke about James Joyce and “Ulysses”, he said; “I published a fiction-essay or kind of meta-novel on this masterpiece, Casa Ulises”, that work was translated by Nick Caistor, and published in 2010, appearing as “The House of Ulysses”.

A novel that is a physical and mental tour through James Joyce’s “Ulysses”, we are guided through the “house” by;

Our Cicerone in rigorous black with a purple polka-dot bow tie, long-legged and pallid, white streaks in chestnut hair smoother back with brilliantine, a blind man’s glasses, a straggly moustache. Like an ice-skater or Fredasteric dance he glided across the Museum’s wide black-and-white checkerboard floor.

The touring party, through the House of Ulysses, includes our narrator, who simply observes and reports to us, three readers;

carrying (each one, one each) a volume of the monumental illustrated edition of Ulysses in three parts: a lanky gent with a white-flecked beard wearing prehistoric white overalls; to his left, the slender form of a dark-haired girl poured into a pair of white shorts, cropped hair and laughing black eyes (“Eyes full of night”) over the indigo “Ulysses Museum” T-shirt, fronted and back-sided by Joyce; to her left, a few paces away, wrapped in a grayish coat with bulging pockets, the tiny old man with white locks and crackling breath, sucking on an extinguished pipe.
The mature reader (did she call him Ananias?), the young female reader (Babel or Belle?), and the old critic. Let’s call them A, B, and C, for short.

And lurking in the background is a “beanpole unanimously baptized as the “man with the Macintosh” (a Macintosh computer, that is)”. These five characters, Cicerone, A, B, C and the man with the Macintosh are our prime debaters throughout this homage.

As readers of Ulysses would recognise, within the introduction of the main players, all within the first three pages of this book, Julián Ríos is playing with references and characters from Joyce’s work.

The book begins with the “Antechambers” of the Museum, where we step inside, and have a high level Homeric introduction. Once we enter the Museum itself we simply follow each of the eighteen chapters from Joyce’s work, named according to the Gilbert schema…’Telemachus’, ‘Nestor’, ‘Proteus’…etc.

Each chapter is broken into two sections, a tour through the physical room, where debate, discussions take place, and a section called “Passageways” where snippets of information about Joyce’s work are presented. Each chapter also includes an explanatory ‘card’ or screen print, containing the schema, For example;


As you can probably gather, it is probably a prerequisite to have read James Joyce’s work, even though Julián Ríos also says in the interview quoted above, “I strongly recommend it to those unable to finish Ulysses.” The presentation of facts, alternate readings, views, deciphering theories are presented throughout this book, here an example from “The Laestrygonians”;

The whole chapter is a tragicomedy about food. “Eat or be eaten. Kill! Kill!” Bloom meditates. Everybody here eats and is eaten. A tramp chews his scarred knuckles in the doorway of the Long John, while in another pub, Byrne’s, a flea is busy devouring Nosey Flynn, who in turn swallows his own snot. Bloom established a list of the strangest things people have been known to eat: Who was it who ate his own dandruff? he wonders. And from there he leaps straight to the Caspian Sea and to caviar… (p112)

Form is also of interest, as readers of “Ulysses” would know, ‘Circe’ is presented as a script, here “Scylla and Charybdis” is presented as a script;

C (counting by tapping his pipe on his fingers): That makes six. I’m afraid there’s one missing for a dress rehearsal of Hamlet.
eyes rolled up): The number seven, beloved of the mystical mind and Pythagoreans. The number of creation, of the planets and alchemists…
C: “The shining seven,” according to a verse by Yeats quotes at the start of this chapter.
B: Yes, it’s Bloom who is missing. He appears almost on tiptoe in the middle of this literary piece, then appears and disappears rapidly at the end of the chapter.
A: I would say that Hamlet-Stephen’s real ghostly father is Bloom: he is such a ghostly presence we hardly even notice him. (pp123-124)

The ninth chapter in “Ulysses” being, “The comedy of a critical comedy in two acts and an intermission that takes place at two in the afternoon in the office of the director of the Irish National Library in Kildare Street.”

At times, using Joycean styles, but at times reading like explanatory notes, and at other times a humorous satire of a satire, as the back cover says “a slapstick parody of the Joyce industry”, this is really a book for people who have read “Ulysses”. At times I felt like I was back in a University classroom, some of the theories being bandied around quite extreme, maybe relevant and maybe planned by Joyce, or maybe just wild theories dreamt up.

Interestingly the development of A, B and C, as they each debate Ulysses, is one of the side features of the book, A the academic bantering with the similarly pedantic C, B bringing the voice of reason, or valid quotes from Joyce’s work to the table. Scant in name, rich in character and depth of knowledge of “Ulysses”, the anonymous characters portray the various ways you can approach Joyce’s book.

Julián Ríos has shown an amazing depth of knowledge of James Joyce’s work (there are references to other books by Joyce), as well as a raft of other literary works, and to think English is not his first language!!! As a recent reader of “Ulysses” I thoroughly enjoyed the banter, the settings, the style and the theories, for people who are yet to read James Joyce’s book I’d think it would fall rather flat.

2018 Man Booker International Prize Longlist


I am no longer a Shadow Jury member for the Man Booker International Prize (‘MBIP’).

For the last four years I have been a member of the Shadow Jury, or more specifically the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (‘IFFP’) Shadow Jury for two years until it merged with the new incarnation of the Man Booker International Prize, which was originally bi-annually and for a body of work, not a single book.. For numerous reasons, I decided that in 2018 I would no longer take part in Shadow Jury duties. During those four years, I  read and reviewed fifty-six longlisted titles (the IFFP had longlists of fifteen titles, the MBIP a longlist of thirteen), the thought of cramming in another thirteen titles within the next two months did not appeal.

With David Grossman winning in 2017 for “A Horse Walks Into A Bar” (translated by Jessica Cohen), I felt the award was catering for the “average”, something safe, something that would sell and not prove too difficult for many readers. Of course a “jury” structure also tends towards the average, and although I understand the wisdom of crowds, I am also a believer that when you trend towards an average, the end result is simply that…average.

As regular visitors here would also notice, in recent times I have been leaning towards more weighty, difficult texts, whilst several titles on the MBIP longlist may meet my reading tastes I didn’t want to be forced a reading list of books that may not appeal and of course the pressing timelines. There are other more private reasons for my withdrawal from the Shadow Jury, but they are simply that…private.

Of course, that decision doesn’t mean I am not interested in translated fiction, nor the prize itself, and having a look at the longlist for the 2018 MBIP there are a few books I am sure I will visit, read and review.

Here is the longlist of thirteen titles, chosen by Chair Lisa Appignanesi, and Judges Michael Hofmann, Hari Kunzru, Tim Martin and Helen Oyeyemi. Presented in alphabetical order by Author surname and including (Nationality), Translator, Title, (Publisher)


  • Laurent Binet (France), Sam Taylor, “The 7th Function of Language” (Harvill Secker)
  • Javier Cercas (Spain), Frank Wynne, “The Impostor” (MacLehose Press)
  • Virginie Despentes (France), Frank Wynne, “Vernon Subutex 1” (MacLehose Press)
  • Jenny Erpenbeck (Germany), Susan Bernofsky, “Go, Went, Gone” (Portobello Books)
  • Han Kang (South Korea), Deborah Smith, “The White Book” (Portobello Books)
  • Ariana Harwicz (Argentina), Sarah Moses & Carolina Orloff, “Die, My Love” (Charco Press)
  • László Krasznahorkai (Hungary), John Batki, Ottilie Mulzet & George Szirtes, “The World Goes On” (Tuskar Rock Press)
  • Antonio Muñoz Molina (Spain), Camilo A. Ramirez, “Like a Fading Shadow” (Tuskar Rock Press)
  • Christoph Ransmayr (Austria), Simon Pare, “The Flying Mountain” (Seagull Books)
  • Ahmed Saadawi (Iraq), Jonathan Wright, “Frankenstein in Baghdad” (Oneworld)
  • Olga Tokarczuk (Poland), Jennifer Croft, “Flights” (Fitzcarraldo Editions)
  • Wu Ming-Yi (Taiwan), Darryl Sterk, “The Stolen Bicycle” (Text Publishing)
  • Gabriela Ybarra (Spain), Natasha Wimmer, “The Dinner Guest” (Harvill Secker)


I am pleased that Jennifer Croft’s translation of Olga Tokarczuk’s “Flights” made the long list, a book I thoroughly enjoyed when I read it last year, from a writer/translator combination that I keep tabs on, and I am eagerly awaiting the massive “The Books of Jakub”  (the title may be slightly different in English once translated), apparently coming from Fitzcarraldo Editions in coming years.

I have Laurent Binet’s and Ariana Harwicz’s books on my shelves and am always interested in László Krasznahorkai’s works as well as books published by Seagull Books, which means Christoph Ransmayr’s novel will probably make its way onto my reading list. However, in 2018 there is no pressure on to read thirteen books within a month, I’ll (maybe) get to them at my leisure. Good luck to the new Shadow Jury, may their reading be informed and their discussions robust.

Three Trapped Tigers – Guillermo Cabrera Infante (translated by Donald Gardner & Suzanne Jill Levine)


Have you ever looked into a mirror and not recognised, or not liked, what you’ve seen?

I saw a young man opposite me (he was to one side of me as I entered, but I turned around), tired-looking with ruffled hair and hollow eyes. He was badly dressed, his shirt was filthy and his loosely knotted tie hung free of his collar, which had no button or clasp. He needed a shave and a limp unkempt mustache drooped round the corners of his mouth. I raised my hand to shake his, bowing slightly at the same time, and he followed suit. I saw he was smiling and sensed I was smiling too: we both got the message at the same time : it was a mirror. (p48)

Guillermo Cabrera Infante’s “Three Trapped Tigers” holds a mirror up to Havana, and pre-Revolution Cuba, and what is seen is not always as expected. A common theme throughout, the mirror appears in the waters of the bays, in the skies, in many many scenes, a book that presents a distorted, or is it a realistic?, view of Havana.

Originally published under the Spanish title “Tres Tristes Tigres” in 1965, the title translates literally as “Three Sad Tigers” but the traditional tongue-twister would be lost in translation, hence to English title. This is a complex and multi layered work and to simply review the whole novel by presenting the narrative plot line would not do the work justice, nor would it to explore all of the themes (I don’t have time to write a thesis!!) so I’ve taken a look at a few high level interesting components, …. And the recurring use of the mirror.

Opening with a “Prologue” it is “Showtime”, from the “Tropicana! the MOST fabulous nightclub in the WORLD”. Our MC introduces not only the players on the cabaret stage but also the audience, “ENORMOUS American audience of glamorous and distinguished tourists who are visiting the land of the gay senyoritas and brave caballeros”, even individually calling out a number of guests. Cuba is the melting pot of external influences.

Our novel essentially follows Cúe the actor, Seseribó the musician, Silvestre the writer and Códac the photographer, all of them chasing art, hunting down the ultimate rhythm, the missing word, the conclusive image. Besides these four “core” characters we have Bustrófedon, whose word plays feature heavily throughout, and La Estrella, a huge singing talent, both coming into and out of focus. But these are not the only players here, this is a novel that is peppered with rich local characters, the melting pot that is Havana figuratively coming into the readers view page after page.

As we were walking along we saw the Cripple with the Gardenias coming out of the dark opposite, with his crutch and his tray of gardenias and his good evening said so politely and with such courtesy it seemed almost impossible he could be so sincere and crossing another street I heard the harsh, nasal and relentless voice of Juan Charrasqueado the Sing-Singing Charro singing the single verse of the lottery which he always sings and repeats a thousand times, Buy your number and buy your number and buy your number and buy your number and buy, meaning they should throw money into his sweaty sombrero as he forcibly passed it around, creating an atmosphere of mock obsession which is poignant because everyone knows he’s incurably mad. (pp74-75)

Billeted as the Cuban “Ulysses” this novel uses a raft of literary techniques to portray a place that is in decay, “twenty-year-old beauties and total hunger are too much in competition with each other for the prize of Havana” (p148). We have first and third person narratives, word games, blank and totally black pages, a sequence of tales written by imagined writers about the assassination of Trotsky, single sentences that cover many pages, as the driver is speeding through the streets, emulating the rush, pictures and a whole lot more…The influence of James Joyce on Guillermo Cabrara Infante is obvious, as is the homage to a city and the compressed time frame.

We talk : about my birthday which wasn’t today but in three months’ time, about the anniversary two weeks back of the day when Bloom’s moll sitting on the bog had let flow a long stream of unconsciousness which would become a milestone, a mill-stone in the shape of a solid shit turd in literary history” (p150-151)

A novel where the cultural references come thick and fast, a work where a reader who is not au fait with music, film, and book influences of the 1960’s and earlier, will require google to be handy. I am sure a magnificent Spotify playlist could be made of the Cuban (and Latin American) musical references;

He didn’t say because I had forgotten Kuérkegaard the next minute and was remembering Count Dracula instead, the unforgettable Bela Legosi” (P363)

Readers of Camus would immediately understand the opening line reference to the section “I Heard Her Sing”;

Bustrófedon died yesterday, or is it today?
Is life a concentric chaos? I don’t know, all I know is my life was a nocturnal chaos with a single center that was Las Vegas and in the center of the center there was a glass of rum and water or rum and ice or rum and soda and that’s where I was from twelve o’clock on, and I turned up just as the first show was finishing and the emcee was thanking his charming and wonderful audience for coming and inviting them to stay for the third and last show of the night and the band was striking up its theme song with a lot of noise and nostalgia, like a circus brass band but changing from the umpa-pa to the two-four or six-eight beat of a
charanga trying out a melody: the noise of a ragtime band coming on like a Kostelanetz string orchestra, something which depresses me even more than knowing I’m already talking like Cué and Eribó, and all the other six million soloists of this island called Tuba and while I’m rubbing the glass in my hands and digressing that sober little man who sits inside me and speaks so low nobody but me can hear him tells me I’m losing my footing and as that genie of the bottle I am has just said very softly now Cuba, and Hey presto! there she was greeting me, popping out of nowhere to say, Hi there honey and at the same time giving me a kiss just where the cheek meets the neck and I looked in the mirror, mirror on the wall (of bottles) and I saw Cuba, every inch of her, bigger and more beautiful and sexier than ever and she was smiling at me so I turned around and put my arm around her waist, And how’re you Cuba baby, I said and kissed her and she kissed me back and said, Be-au-ti-ful, and I don’t know if she was okaying the kisses she was testing with that sex sense she carries on the tip of her tongue or if she was extolling her soul, as Alex Bayer would say, because her body sure didn’t need any padding. Or maybe she was simply glowing over the evening and our chance meeting. (pp292-3)

There’s the mirrors again, only a few pages earlier we had; Bustrófedon, he…”has taken a trip to the other world, to his opposite, to his negative, to his anti-self, to the other side of the mirror”…(p284), we then have a full page of mirrored text!!!

Ending with a large section where our characters descend into melancholy, a night of drinking, driving and incessant word game playing, the disintegration of a cultural identity becomes more and more evident.

Art (like religion or science or philosophy) is just one more attempt to focus the light of order on the gloom of chaos. (p361)

Complex, difficult, playful, engaging and enlightening, this is a masterful work of literature, amazingly a fringe player on the world stage, it pre-dates a number of Roberto Bolaño’s themes (the diagrams were hauntingly familiar), whilst paying homage to great maters such as Proust, Kafka and Joyce;

Besides, I haven’t the slightest reverence either for Marcel Proust (which he rhymed, distinctly, with pooh), or for James Joyce (Cué pronounced it Shame’s Choice) or for Kafka (it sounded like caca in his otherwise well-behaved voice). This is the Holy Trinity, whom you must adore if you are to write in the twentieth century – and as I wouldn’t be able to write in the twenty-first… (p352)

There are so many themes one could follow here, from the opening Epigraph from Lewis Carroll and “Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland” and a paragraph that gets “smaller and smaller and smaller and yet smaller”, or the list of characters, or a listing of all the musical references – you could follow hundreds of threads. Another book for those who like their works to challenge, savour the use of language, the word play, the mish-mash of cultural references, Guillermo Cabrera Infante has held a mirror up, he is separated from his country, his culture, his youth, it appears as though he doesn’t recognise what he sees.

The Rehearsals – Vladimir Sharov (translated by Oliver Ready)


How to comment on this latest release from Dedalus Books?

The Translator’s Foreword gives us a clue as to what to expect, when stating; “the sensation of gradually being drawn into something without immediately grasping how or why.” Or early on in the novel Vladimir Sharov stating; “another story of good and evil.” (p 26). However these broad brush approaches do not address the ambition of this novel.

Presented as historical research, the early sections of the book are dedicated with the teachings of Sergei Nikolayevich Ilyin, a man trying to understand God, together with a raft of theological presentations, all happening in 1958. But before the book progresses to Ilyin’s teachings we have this opening line;

In 1939 Isiah Trifonovich Kobylin ceased to be a Jew, and the Jewish nation, of which he was the last, ended with him.

Are we going to follow the life of Isiah Trifonovich Kobylin? The novel ends with “he was no longer a Jew”, therefore a circular tale?

Once I compared the short story to the idea of a sphere, which is the most perfect geometric form because it is closed and all of the infinite points on its surface are equidistant from its invisible central point. – Julio Cortázar “Literature Class”

When I recently read this quote by Cortázar, I immediately thought of “The Rehearsals”, even though it is very far removed from a short story. Our starting and ending points enclosing Isiah’s Jewish cessation and the end of the Jewish nation. However to explain this work simply from its starting and ending points would be folly.

A novel would never make me think of a sphere; it might make me think of a polyhedron, of an enormous structure. – Julio Cortázar “Literature Class”

I’m not even 100% convinced that structurally “The Rehearsals” could even be described as a polyhedron! I think of a massive mind map, with lines heading in every single direction, further explorations heading from them, and then further, always leading back towards an historical core. In this rambling, complex, multi layered novel, Vladimir Sharov addresses a range of issues, the Schism, theological opposites, internment, the gulags, all with an historical depth that, at times, reads like a non-fiction expose.

From the opening line, where Isiah ceases to be a Jew, the novel moves to the 1950’s and 60’s putting together an academic background for our narrator, his university studies in History and Literature, “Gogol and Comparative Literary Criticism” as lectured by an ex interred philosopher Vladimir Ivanovich Kuchmy. The book includes Kuchmy’s observations on Nikolai Gogol’s story “The Nose”, yes we are rooted in Russian history here;

…there was always more to the story of Kovalyov that its jokey, abstract conclusion, something much more terrifying, and this something is encoded in the dates of the action, which endow the entire tale with a quite different explanation and meaning. (p46)

Pay attention reader, there is something encoded in the dates here, and the dates come thick and fast in this book… for example, March 25th and April 7th are a “truly demonic time, a time that doesn’t exist and that increases all the while.”

Moving, in just fifty odd pages from 1939, to, 1955 and 1958 we then jump to 1963, where our narrator is studying the history of Siberia, being taught by Valentin Nikolayevich Suvorin, a great nephew of the publisher of Chekov

Suvorin considered the Russian state to have been deliberately built from the very beginning not on the slow and ponderous growth of economic ties, on the reality of day-to-day life, but on ideas, on its understanding of its place and territory in the world of ideas, its understanding of its destiny, its mission of what set it apart from the destiny of everyone else, brought and bound together those who lived here, and made of them a nation. Without this sense of otherness, there would be no Russia. (p 58)

Suvorin then begins to discuss Nikon, the seventh Patriarch of Moscow, his relationship with Tsar Alexis and the “Raskol” schism in the Russian Orthodox Church. Patriarch Nikon founded the New Jerusalem Monastery in Istra;

‘There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that Nikon was expecting the beginning of the end of the world either in 1666 – the more likely date – or after a further thirty-three years (the span of the Saviour’s life on earth). He was no exception. It’s well known that in both the Western and Eastern Churches the dates for Easter had been fixed no further than 1666 and, despite the vogue for rationalism, expectation of the end was all but universal. (p65)

The lecturer Suvorin dies and the narrator acquires his library, his contacts for building this library and an old manuscript. This manuscript and other part of the collection are the books, papers and diaries of a French theatre director Jacques de Sertan and eighty six pages into the novel we begin to learn of this ancient manuscript, is this the basis of the novel itself (as the blub on the back cover would suggest)?

Here we learn of a play that is to be performed re-enacting the life of Christ, using untrained local illiterate peasants in the leading New Testament roles, no actor is to play Christ, as “Christ knows everything and, when the time comes, He will reveal Himself – that is His business”. As Sertan teaches these peasants and the words slowly become their own, they begin to see him as the Messiah, or is he?

When the actors repeated Sertan’s words, trying to feel what it was he was saying, he sensed the maternal instinct waking inside him, as in a bird whose offspring have just hatched; it was as if they were eating out of his mouth, and he would often forget that the words were not his, although, in our view, this was quite understandable. And so, while he was reading them the Gospels, all their strength was spent on remembering, simply remembering the words, and the intonation, and the speed with which they were spoken, and the actors would puff and pant, sweat and tire far more than when they were ploughing the fields. There was no question at this point of their having understood anything much at all; only when they felt that the main job of remembering had been done and they had earned a rest did the word begin to live inside them. (p125)

The troupe are eventually exiled to Siberia and are isolated to set up their own community, the actors playing the Apostles, become the Apostles.

Christians and Jews alike knew that everything would be fulfilled, that the world could be arranged in no other way, and that whether you drew the long straw or the short straw, you could not refuse it, even if it fell to you to bring Christ to Golgotha, crucify Him, and then sink into oblivion. (p272)

Following generation after generation, as they await the second coming, in exile, this is an exploration of human behaviour, it includes anarchy, nihilism, violence, peace, democratic rule a raft of experiences. Touching on difficult theosophical theories and events, this book becomes a melting pot of possibilities;

…a model of the most intricate processes of folk creativity, showing how legends spread and mingle, how new ones are born and multiply, how they combine different voices and different strata of culture and time. (p290)

A novel that covers 300 years of historical events, this is a rabbit warren, sometimes moving through romantic tales, other times moving through brutal exile, as soon as you become attached to one narrative thread you are suddenly thrown onto a different path. Given the breadth of time involved here and the players being associated with biblical characters the development of individuals becomes problematic. Grand in its scale, epic in the telling, and clinical in the presentation this is an interesting thought provoking book. Circular it may be, simply because of the beginning and end, complex and multi-dimensional also, you do become drawn in without really understanding how or why, a book for readers who like their titles to challenge.


I read James Joyce’s “Ulysses”


Righteo, I read “Ulysses”, apparently that’s an achievement. Instead of writing a post full of your usual Joycean delving, probing or analysis, I thought I’d simply write about the reading experience. Let’s be honest, if you want to find out more about “Ulysses” there are thousands of places to go, classes, internet tools, books, clubs, you could keep yourself busy and increase your blood pressure for the remainder of your life and still walk away not 100% convinced you’ve understood a damn thing.

“Ulysses” has a reputation, one that precedes itself, “unreadable”, “life’s too short to read Ulysses”, and numerous other derogatory comments litter the reading websites, a demanding work obviously and numerous people just aren’t looking for focused concentration when they open a book, all of this myth had me concerned before I’d even opened page one.

First up I should mention the edition I chose to read. I’m sure every city has them, a chain of bookstores where remainders are marked, and then sold off at about a third of the recommended retail price. The shops that are littered with the next bestseller that actually never sold, thousands of copies of Jodi Picoult, Dan Brown et al. Occasionally I wander into these concrete caverns and browse, only to find some obscure out-of-print book that I’d long been looking for. On a recent visit they had one copy of the Gabler Edition of “Ulysses”, for $10 – bargain. In a nutshell the “Gabler” is a revised edition attempting to correct any errors made in earlier editions – there’s a decent “Foreword” and a large “Afterword” explaining the discovery process and the substantial effort put in to editing and publishing a definitive edition, that’s not for this post.

Before I go on, apologies to any Joyce scholars, or avid readers of “Ulysses”, below are my thoughts as I read the book, these are not in any way scholarly, nor have they been researched, do not take offence at a simple man’s views on what he thought whilst reading. If you disagree with anything, feel free to let me know, however I re-iterate that these are my thoughts, and plenty of times I have been known to be wrong.

Onto the book itself;

Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. A yellow dressing gown, ungirdled, was sustained gently-behind him by the mild morning air. He held the bowl aloft and intoned:

Not that hard, Buck’s walking down the stairs with a bowl of lather, a crossed mirror and razor, about to have a shave….I actually made it through chapter one in a single sitting, undaunted, not overly perplexed, a chapter a day, be done in eighteen days. What’s the fuss? I’d started on a positive footing, a few google references required for some of the Latin quotes, a quick check of Homeric allusions, no guide required, I will be right. I had gone in blind, like heading out for a multi-day hike with some water, enough food, equipment, a rough idea of the terrain and hoping for the best. I’d managed to find the Linati and Gilbert “schema” on the internet, it gave a few pointers for each of the chapters (the map?) but I intentionally did not refer to the numerous multi layered guides, highlighting every nuance, dissecting every sentence.

At the highest level I understood Stephen Dedalus was trying to reconcile his blame for his mother’s death, I knew that Bloom was aware of Molly’s indiscretion, I figured out Bloom’s grief process for his young son, his father’s suicide, and of course the funeral. Surely you don’t read “Ulysses” for these broad narrative brushes!

Could I keep reading a chapter a day and be done in eighteen days? Of course I was wrong, I had underestimated the complexity, my resilience, in some cases the sheer length of some chapters (as well as my free time), a chapter a day was unachievable but it took me until Chapter Eight before I realised such….more struggles…and then I hit Chapter Fourteen “Oxen of the Sun”.

Complex, cryptic, but extremely rewarding, the gestation of the English language in a chapter about embryonic development, this section apparently mimicking the c14th travels of Sir John Mandeville, (I’ve added my simplified interpretation after each sentence):

And in the castle was set a board that was of the birchwood of Finlandy and it was upheld by four dwarfmen of that country but they durst not move more for enchantment. (A table with carved legs?)

And on this board were frightful swords and knives that are made in a great cavern by swinking demons out of white flames that they fix then in the horns of buffalos and stags that there abound marvellously. (Knives and forks with bone handles?)

And there were vessels that are wrought by magic of Mahound out of seasand and the air by a warlock with his breath that he blases in to them like to bubbles. (Glasses – glass blowing molten sand?)

And full fair cheer and rich was on the board that no wight could devise a fuller ne richer. And there was a vat of silver that was moved by craft to open in the which lay strange fishes withouten heads though misbelieving men nie that this be possible thing with they see it natheless that are so. And these fishes lie in an oily water brought there from Portugal land because of the fatness that therein is like to the juices of the olivepress. (A can of Portugese sardines in olive oil?)

And also it was a marvel to see in that castle how by magic they make a compost out of fecund wheatkidneys out of Chaldee that by aid of certain angry spirits that they do in to it swells up wondrously like to a vast mountain. (Bread?)

Basically a table with cutlery, some bread and a can of sardines!
Needless to say I got bogged down here and in the following “Circe” Chapter. But I soldiered on, sometimes vividly imagining the setting, other times simply reading the words, clueless as to what on earth was going on.

And then suddenly Bloom returns home, in the wee hours of the morning, Chapter Seventeen, “Ithaca” Odysseus returns, and then “Penelope”, Molly Bloom’s stream of consciousness, back to a chapter a day.

Of the Homeric references, there would be plenty I missed, but I particularly enjoyed “Nausicaä” chapter Thirteen. In the Odyssey, Odysseus is shipwrecked on the island of Scheria (or Phaeacia), Nausicaä and her handmaidens go to the sea-shore to wash clothes (thanks Wikipedia). In “Ulysses” we have the readable, and controversial when it came to banning the book, chapter where Bloom masturbates whilst observing the flirting Gerty on the beach. But early on in the chapter we have the equivalent of the handmaidens’;

The three girl friends were seated on the rocks, enjoying the evening scene and the air which was fresh but not too chilly. Many a time and oft were they wont to come there to that favourite nook to have a cosy chat beside the sparkling waves and discuss matters feminine…

The washing coming in lines 173+

She had four dinky sets with awfully pretty stitchery, three garments and nighties extra, and each set slotted with different coloured ribbons, rosepink, pale blue, mauve and peagreen, and she aired them herself and blued them when they came home from the wash and ironed them and she had a brickbat to keep the iron on because she wouldn’t trust those washerwomen as far as she’d see them scorching the things.

Once completed I attended a seminar in Melbourne which was an “Introduction to Ulysses” and there were hints about what chapter’s to read in what order, pointers as to Joyce’s life, reflections upon certain sections (although not everybody has the same edition of course) and a few discussions about interpretation. A room full of people wanting to delve further and further into this iconic book. Me? I’ll dabble again, I’ll pick it up and dip in and out, I’m highly unlikely to read it from cover to cover again, and I’m even unlikely to attend another seminar.

Late last year I posted a list of works, from various sources, which have been referred to as the “Ulysses” of their country or language. I’d really enjoyed a number of books on that list, for their complexity, their boldness, their experimentation, and will slowly work my way through the majority that have been mentioned. A sort of quest, a challenge, yes, but an enjoyable approach to looking at world literature. Is there time to read Joyce again?