The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Themes appear in clumps in my alphabetical assault on thin books. Among the 'M's is mortality, sudden and shocking in some cases, gradual and insidious in others. I have in mind David Miller's Today, where a family gathering to celebrate the younger son's 18th birthday is cast into disarray by the death of the father. I also have in mind Tessa McWatt's Vital Signs, where a cerebral aneurysm causes confabulation in a mother, and her confusing speech lays bare the tensions among the rest of the family, who deal with her degradation with varying levels of defiance, guilt and pain.

Miller's debut novel is set in 1924 when Joseph Conrad died. His wife is an invalid who faces a life of increasing discomfort and loneliness. His elder son has returned damaged from the Great War and is enraged with his father for being distant, jealous of his younger brother for receiving Conrad's attention, worried about making ends meet for his own young family. The younger boy recalls his father's kindness and cannot imagine a life ahead without the shelter of that love. Conrad's secretary is in the book as well: her mind is not as sharp as it once was, and she has her own memories of the author; but did their intimate work relationship also become an affair? Conrad's great friend Curle, a journalist, is most moved by the passing, and tries to keep the family coherent. The book is strong on details of activity that ensue after the death, activity that wants to take the place of emotion. But emotion is above all in this book, in the fraternal rivalry, in the distance Conrad's wife feels from her own siblings, and in the desolation that Conrad's secretary faces.

Aleksandar Maćašev's illustrations for Vital Signs

Tessa McWatt's little book is filled with illustrations by the remarkable Aleksandar Maćašev, illustrations that the husband uses as the only possible way to communicate with his sick wife. Long years of intimacy and sexual satisfaction have not prevented him from straying. He blames his wife's strength and the downward spiral of his own once successful career for his infidelity. Yet he is hardly supportive of his lover despite their years-long affair. It is clear he is quite an unreliable man, and even in his introspection there is falsity. When his wife retreats into false memories of her life following her aneurysm, however, he is desperate to bring her back. As he examines their lives together, he learns of  his disappointment with her and his own selfishness. While Vital Signs is about his attempts to reconnect with his wife, for me the true tragedy is the fate of the children who have been cast into the world with little empathy from him, and who respond in their own ways - shamed, conciliatory, passive, enraged. It is a traumatic doubt that many a parent faces - what if their children become strangers to them?


I should also mention Simon Okotie's clever 'Whatever Happened to Harold Absalon', a tale of a seedy, horny, intensely self-analytical, obsessive detective named Marguerite, who is following the wife of the disappeared Harold Absalon. Okotie wrote this book while commuting by bus, and the action, such as it is, is predominantly on a bus, except that the book is less about plot (the entire narrative covers about half an hour of action) than about the dendritic manner of thought, where every thought has sub thoughts and digressions. The time it takes Marguerite to board a bus and then get off it  requires tens of chapters because at every juncture, Marguerite - or a person who is looking into his head and questioning his motives - feels it necessary to explain himself as thoroughly as possible, as though he were in court, facing a deeply inquisitive judge. The nesting of thoughts is long and rambling, and runs into paragraphs of dense prose. There is humour in this obsession, but it is rapidly wearying, and though the book is exactly 200 pages long, the conceit loses its charm in about 50. Still, I wouldn't dismiss it entirely, as despite Marguerite's desperation for accuracy, it's clear that there may be another, more troubling, parallel narrative. If you read it, let me know what you think.


Then there's Herta Mueller's The Passport, which is as grim an account of social ostracism and despair as I have ever read. Mueller is of the Swabian (German-speaking) minority in Romania, and this little book is about the desperation of a miller to emigrate from Ceausescu's pitiful country to Germany. The book seethes with corruption, paranoia and disaffection: the priest demands sexual favours to provide baptismal certificates; the militiaman demands sexual favours to forward the papers to the relevant authority; you are not even convinced that life in Germany is any better, what with its own lax social mores and filth on television; the Romanians despise you and can barely wait to get rid of you so they can take over your property. Life under totalitarianism is so invidious in its effects that humanity itself is lost. Everything that can bring joy in freedom is twisted out of shape here. Can you even trust your own family?


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