Monday, 29 June 2009

Andorra: A Great Novel set in a Small Nation

There's something not quite right about Peter Cameron's “Andorra” - the place, not the novel, that is. It is a Mediterranean coastal town, for one thing, unlike the actual landlocked principality in the Pyrenees. It's also full of preposterously named residents (Sophonsobia Quay, Vladimir Afgroni, etc.) who take an unsettling interest in the newcomer in their midst: an American fleeing a failed life shrouded in mystery. Reading like a collision between Noël Coward and Franz Kafka, this recently reissued 1997 novel may be Cameron's masterpiece.

After a devastating personal tragedy, a man leaves the United States to begin his life abroad. The country in which he finds himself is inordinately influenced by his imagination, and the events there are eerily reminiscent of his past, especially when he begins to fall in love with two women simultaneously.

Andorra - in this novel - is a small country, populated (almost exclusively) by the ancient Mrs. Reinhardt, who outlives her lifetime lease on the penthouse of the Hotel Exelsior; the Dents, an Australian couple who share a first name, a huge dog, and a secret. There is also Sophonsobia Quay, the kayaking matriarch of the powerful Quay family; her two beautiful but troubled daughters; Esmeralda St. Pitt, who runs a boarding-house for those with impeccable moral credentials; Ali, the fatalistic purveyor of coffee; and Alexander Fox, who finds himself not only in a foreign country but also in a crisis of faith, conscience, and identity.

Of course, this is no travelogue for the actual country of Andorra, but - having decided on this book in the absence of any native literature (and to be fair, this is a state with a population of only 84,000) – I am pleased with my choice. As well as being a wonderful read, “Andorra” demonstrates the fact that minor countries (in terms of size or literary/educational resources) - without known indigenous writers – are open to the danger of having their cultural reality purloined by foreign authors...sometimes for socio-political reasons. This is not necessarily the case in this instance, but will be something to consider when travelling to developing countries in Asia and Africa.

And so, from an ambiguous country, I take an ambiguous journey to end up in Madrid, in the neighbouring country of Spain: with “My Brother’s Gun” set in Madrid, by popular native author Ray Loriga.

Sunday, 28 June 2009

A Very French Society: Philosophy meets Commonality in an elegant Parisian apartment.

“Madame Michel has the elegance of the hedgehog: on the outside, she’s covered in quills, a real fortress, but my gut feeling is that on the inside, she has the same simple refinement as the hedgehog: a deceptively indolent little creature, fiercely solitary—and terribly elegant.”

My second port of call is Paris, France, with “The Elegance of the Hedgehog” by native author Muriel Barbery. This novel was a literary sensation both in France and abroad, selling over half a million copies, and I was eager to see if it lived up to the hype…

The first narrator, Renee Michel, is a fifty-four-year-old woman who has been working for twenty-seven years as concierge of a small Parisian apartment building. Describing herself as a “proletarian autodidact,” she explains that she grew up poor and had to quit school at age twelve to work in the fields, but throughout her life she has been studying philosophy secretly, insatiable in her quest for knowledge about who she is and how she fits into the grand scheme of life.

Renee is grateful for her job as concierge, but she finds it prudent to keep her rich intellectual life hidden from the residents. Because she has no other future, she maintains the façade of the perfect concierge, someone who lives in a completely different world from them. She hides her books and even buys two TVs, keeping them turned on so that the residents will regard her as a typical, TV-watching employee.
Alternating with Renee’s thoughts about her life and the books she has been reading, are the musings of Paloma Josse, the twelve-year-old daughter of wealthy parents whose father is Minister of the Republic and whose mother, with a PhD in education, has an active professional life. Like Renee, Paloma pretends to be just average, carefully constructing her own façade so that she can fit in at school, though she has the intellectual level of a senior in college. With an older sister who torments her, Paloma is a child who has fallen through the cracks, ignored by her parents and within the school society in which she must pretend every day to be just average, a terrible strain. She has decided that on her thirteenth birthday, she will take the only path open to her: she will commit suicide, burning down her house at the same time.

She has, however, given herself an “out.” She believes that beauty can elevate humans, and she is seeking “whatever is beautiful enough to give life meaning…If I find something, then I may rethink my options: if I find a body with beautiful movement or, failing that, a beautiful idea for the mind, well then maybe I’ll think that life is worth living.”

As the lives of Renee and Paloma unfold and sometimes overlap, the rough parallels in their lives become obvious, not just in their isolation and in their need to hide their talents but in the motifs that the author establishes. Nature and its concern with moments of perfect beauty, life, and death pervade the novel. In one hilariously ironic variation of this theme, Neptune, a dog who lives in the apartment house, is observed by both Renee and Paloma as he discovers kairos, “the perfect moment” — when he mates vigorously with the whippet belonging to another resident, to the horror of the stodgy residents.

When one of the residents dies and his family decides to sell the apartment to a new owner, the novel reaches its turning point. Kakuro Ozu, whom Renee thinks may be related to the Japanese film maker that she most admires, moves in. Paloma, too, is impressed with Ozu, bemoaning the fact that he has moved in just as she has decided to kill herself. When Ozu confesses to Paloma that he suspects that Mme. Michel (Renee) is not what she seems to be, his relationship with Renee and with Paloma begins to cross the class divide at the apartment house, and Paloma begins to hope for the future.

Barbery is a skilled writer with a great ability to combine the philosophy of Renee’s studies—from Husserl’s phenomenology, to determinism and Kant’s idealism—with aesthetics and the desire of both Renee and Paloma to find true beauty in art, poetry, and life itself. Always, however, she remembers that she is writing a story, with characters who must appeal to the reader. As Renee and Ozu become friends and as Paloma begins to identify with them and share confidences with Ozu, all change their views of who they are and what their lives might be.

By the time the novel ends, the reader understands both the characters and the forces that have made them the people they are, hoping at the same time that all will manage to find happiness. Motifs from Japanese film and the novels of Tolstoy combine with images celebrating the perennial beauty of flowers (especially the camellia) and the connection of beauty with death, adding universality to the stories of these characters and connecting them to broader themes. Thoughtful, ironic, and often darkly humorous, the novel creates moods which bring the characters vividly to life, even as they are contemplating the deepest of life’s mysteries.

All in all, a fascinating representation for France. Despite its cutesy air of chocolate-box Paris, “The Elegance of the Hedgehog” is, in fact, quite radical in its stand against French classism and hypocrisy. It's intriguing that her compatriots have bought into it so enthusiastically…

I now leave France for the tiny country of Andorra….sort of. Whilst Andorra is, in fact, a tiny nation-state that lies, landlocked, in the mountainous region between France and Spain; the novel of “Andorra” by Peter Cameron is on the ocean. Similarly the capital city of La Plata does not, in reality, exist. That said, I am pleased with my choice: though by a non-native writer and (quite intentionally by the author) bearing little resemblance to the actual Andorran topography, Peter Cameron's book is highly entertaining and also perfectly demonstrates the elusive nature of such tiny countries and how - without known indigenous writers - their actual reality can become purloined by foreign authors...

In detailing the journey from Paris to this fictionalised version of Andorra, I shall quote Cameron’s own fictional account the protagonist’s arrival:
“Andorra’s dramatic topography makes it unapproachable by air, so I arrived vuia train from Paris…I like to arrive in new places by train. There is something about literally crossing borders, traversing frontiers, watchnig the countryside hurtle by the window and become exurban, and then the gradual diminution of speed as the train approaches a city, that allows one to arrive with an experience of place that flying disallows.

“Andorra is a small country and her city – for there is only one: the capital, La Plata – is proportionately small. The train station at which I found myself was not the chaotic grand temple one expects in European cities, but simply several glass-roofed platforms separated by as many tracks, a whitewashed waiting room with worn wicker furniture and a ceiling fan that rotated at a speed that succeed only in proving that it was operational.”

Saturday, 27 June 2009

Salaam to the World on the start of my epic journey: Bricking it in London!

And so after all the research and planning I am finally starting my global journey - which I commence with a mixture of excitement but also trepidation: this is a long-haul journey which will take several years and I hope I am up to the task!

The starting point for my trip is London, in my home country of England (for the purposes of this trip I am splitting the UK into its 4 constituent countries) with Tarquin Hall's "Salaam Brick Lane". This book should not be confused with the popular novel called "Brick Lane" by Monica Ali, although it is set in the same part of London, currently known for its large Bangladeshi population. The author of this work returned to the UK from abroad after 10 years and found himself spending a year in a tiny bedsit in the East End of London...

The reason I chose this novel is that - living near and working in London, I get a real sense of the city as a place of diversity and cosmopolitanism - not only in the modern day but historically. An amusing example of this is where at one stage the author meets an Indian anthropologist who is searching for the 'true' English East Ender and who is appalled to find that there are no residents who can trace their pure Englishness beyond a generation or two... and this I think, sums up a very key element of 'Englishness' (and why Englishness is so hard to define) - the English are a mongrel race that have always incorporated other cultures and will no doubt continue to do so. Tarquin Hall acknowledges this as a key strength of our culture, and also - being an upper-class public-school educated graduate who grew up in 'posh' West London - demonstrates how prejudice can just as easily be experienced across CLASS in England, as RACE. The fact that his girlfriend who joins him in his 'bijou' bedsit (mistakenly) expecting a city of glitz and glamour is an Indian-born American, adds to this wide perspective of class and culture.

The book itself is an enjoyable read, with a series of interesting - and often tragicomic - characters such as his landlord Mr Ali - "an unlikely mixture of South Asian and Estuary", and his Albanian neighbours. This is narrative non-fiction in the vein of Bill Bryson (with aspirations to Paul Theroux), and I'd recommend it as a taste of how London is perceived and experienced by its own residents.

A particularly striking part of the book is the description of the author's many hours spent gazing out of his attic window at a bagel store across the street. In the space of 24 hours a whole cross section of London drifts into its doors without ever meeting... cleaners in the early hours, builders later on, commuters grabbing breakfast at rush hour, tramps and beggars during the day, clubbers in the evening and prostitutes & drug dealers throughout the night. A whole panorama of interlinked humanity that combine to make up London, yet move in very different worlds - all intersecting at a humble bagel store in Brick Lane.

It may seem unusual that I didn't pick a novel for this first leg, however I believe England has a culture of socio-realism in literature (such as George Orwell's travel writings) which this book reflects, and, to be honest, I am not convinced there are that many worthy novelists at the moment who are dealing with indigenous topics and settings. I plan to wrap up my journey (after several hundred intervening countries) back in England..., which I shall be splitting up further into regions. I hope to be to find suitable writers to end my trip at this time (which will no doubt be several years away!).

Next stop is France and a rather nice luxury apartment in Paris with the best-selling “The Elegance of the Hedgehog” by Muriel Barbery. Compared no doubt, to future journeys, my trip from London to Paris is both cheap and comfortable.

I purchase a one-way standard ticket online for a mere £39, leaving London at 8.02 in the morning from the hugely impressive St Pancras International station. St Pancras International is a triumph of nineteenth century station architecture and one of the wonders of London. The newer elements are just as impressive: below the magnificent curved glass ceiling, a nine-metre high sculpture of lovers meeting beneath the station clock watches diners in an excellent restaurant and a the longest champagne bar in Europe. Also there's a great range of independent, upmarket shops to browse through.

The train itself is comfortable and air-conditioned with food and drink available from a café bar, and the journey is just over three hours; arriving at 11.17 in Paris’ Gard du Nord: another impressive historic station that has recently benefitted from a major refurbishment. I shall update you on my French sojourn in the next post!

My Round the World trip through books begins!

Welcome to my journey!
This is the first post on a blog that will chart my journey on a Round the World trip through literature... which commences May 22nd 2009.
I am travelling the globe through literature (fiction and narrative non-fiction), starting in London, England.

I have mapped out a route around the world, as well as a book (or books for larger countries) to represent each nation that I am travelling to.

Just so you know, my constraints are:
1) Book must be fiction or narrative non-fiction (i.e. not a Lonely Planet-type Travel Guide) written by a native-born author* and set in the country of origin;
2) Book must not have been written, or be set, any earlier than 1990;
3) Books must be translated into English (or French at a push) - sorry, was never that good at languages...
4) Travel from one country / continent to another must be realistic (i.e. from one neighbouring country to another - such as France to Spain - or between landmasses which have an actual air/shipping route - e.g. Australia to Antarctica to Argentina:- a planned part of my trip much later on);
5) Books must be reasonably representative of the country - with a certain degree of cultural / social representation etc - even if this is as a background to a wider plot... what I am after is a sense of the country in question in recent times...

* where absolutely necessary I will go with a suitable non-native author.

Well, there you go, just to give you an example:- my first port of call will be in my native England. My first choice was "Salaam Brick Lane" - a narrative non-fiction by a public-school-educated Londoner who returned from 10 years abroad to live in the modern East End, and so incorporating an interesting breadth of class, as well as cultural, diversity in contemporary England.

Any further comments / suggestions more than welcome - either on this blog or at: