Declares Pereira by Antonio Tabucchi

Not far into the novel, Pereira, pitched as a real man telling his story to the narrator, quotes an ‘oft-repeated saying of an uncle of his, an unsuccessful writer’: ‘Philosophy appears to concern itself only with the truth, but perhaps expresses only fantasies, while literature appears to concern itself only with fantasies, but perhaps it expresses the truth.’

This gentle, subtle novel, tells the story of a middle-aged Portuguese widower waking up to the world of Europe in the 1930s and a right-wing Portuguese dictatorship. I say gentle, though the events are anything but. I say subtle, though the novel makes clear both the reader’s and writer’s responsibility to speak out against brutally enforced censorship (indeed there is an on-going assessment of authors whose literature is measured by their ability to concern themselves with fantasies that speak the truth). My reason for using those words, that suggest writing of quiet elegance, is how well Tabucchi evokes the normal, daily activities and worries at the heart of Pereira’s story. A life beset by worries over his health and his weight, a life weighed down by grief and loneliness – his closest confidant is the photograph of his dead wife – but lifted by such simple things as an omelette for lunch, sitting by a fan in the heat, or a chance to have a real discussion about ideas and opinions. His progression to revolutionary feeling and action is a slow movement of the mind that begins with a feeling of repentance.

Pereira is a journalist in charge of a new section of a middleweight evening paper, the culture pages. He reads an article that quotes from a thesis of a young man and Pereira is so touched by this article that he contacts the young man and arranges to meet him. They meet at a nationalist rally where Pereira offers him a job writing provisional obituaries for living authors. Pereira sees his own youth in the man, and wishes, not for the first time, that he and his wife had been able to have children. When this young man’s girlfriend appears his paternal feelings are heightened; he worries this young lady is no good and will prove nothing but trouble for the young man.

This tiny step out of his world of grief and into the world of the young, a world they face bravely, leads Pereira down a path of self-discovery. Via a French trained Doctor at a health spa, who encourages him to listen to the part of himself that longs to slough off his torpor, this interaction with these two young people forces him to wake from his apathy of self-absorption.

Declares Pereira is a beautiful novel of lasting relevance. What begins as a man questioning the relevance of his life becomes a novel that asks us to pose the same question of ourselves.

Next week I’ll be reading, How To Be A Public Author by Francis Plug, followed by Mockstars by Christopher Russell. It is a relief to have moved beyond the confines of reading ahead of the Man Booker 2014 announcement – despite the excellent quality of the list this year, part of my pleasure in reading is dipping into books across genres, countries, and ages – and I am very happy that Richard Flanagan received the prize. Please do keep your suggestions and comments coming. It may seem that there aren’t many on the site, but I’m glad to say I’ve had lots of interesting conversations off the back of the blog. Feel free to start the conversations here.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

Sewn around the life of Dorrigo Evans, a Tasmanian Corporeal and Doctor who led his men through the life of prisoners of war in service of the Japanese in Thailand, building a railway line for the Emperor with little more than a handful of rice as daily rations and rope and hammers to build with, The Narrow Road to the Deep North is a novel that weaves through time and characters all searching for what it means to be alive. The rhythm, beauty and coherent promise of poetry interlace the different sections that take different lives into the hell of war and the battlefield of marriage. The Haiku, death poems, beluga calls and Tennyson round out these lives in an illusive and circuitous search for meaning.

Profoundly moving and, like of the other novels on Man Booker shortlist, deeply concerned with what it means to be human and how life matters at all, The Narrow Road to the Deep North is a delicately constructed work of beauty that I wish I had read more slowly.

Now I have read all the 2014 Man Booker short list, I feel several things: inspired, humbled and less irritated than I often am when contemplating short lists of this kind. There are novels I wish were in the short list – such as The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth – and there are novels that I feel aren’t worthy of this year’s short list despite being good books in their own right – To Rise Again at a Decent Hour and We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. I think the other four novels – how to be both, J, The Lives of Others and The Narrow Road to the Deep North – are all books that deserve to be read by many and read again and I would be saddened if they didn’t become classics of their kind. I suppose my favourites are how to be both and The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Which should win? I’m not sure. As Dorrigo Evans himself muses, ‘A good book, he had concluded, leaves you wanting to reread the book. A great book compels you to reread your own soul.’ Though how to be both is moving and provoking, my soul is perhaps more challenged by The Narrow Road to the Deep North. I’m not sure. I may change my mind when the haste of reading in a flurry passes and I’m left with those aftertastes that linger in the mind and form tiny fissures of thought that crack through the every day.

Next week I’m reading Declares Pereira by Antonion Tabucchi and pondering whether I should continue the blog. Let me know what you think.

The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee

The Lives of Others does exactly what it says on the tin: it gives a wide spectrum of different but connected lives and shows how difficult it is to lay a clear path of fairness in the mess of familial, social, cultural, religious, legal, moral and emotional relations and relationships. The novel does what I hope all great literature should aspire to do: it sets ideas against practice, it shows thought muddied in the water of experience, it asks the reader to question their own easy affiliations with the world around them, and it does this through the precise rendering of characters’ thoughts and actions. The characters we meet come to us through four generations of the Ghosh family, a Bengali middle-class family living in Calcutta. We see the shifts in their social and financial standing. We see the intimate quirks of their family life.

Whilst it is typical of an Indian novel to stretch over generations – we watch them live through Indian Independence, the Independence of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh and specifically the Naxalite student movement in Calcutta that fed into revolutionary action in West Bengal, all the way to 2012 – Neel Mukherjee’s ability to jump between very variant perspectives and present characters whose differing standpoints and views all induce empathy is inspiring. What path should we take through a world full of such conflicting injustice?

There were times that I felt I waded through the novel, as the weight of different experience slowed my progression, but the wading is worth it. The Lives of Others is an immensely powerful and moving novel that I hope lots of people will read. I’m not sure if I want it to win the Man Booker 2014, but I’m very pleased the judges chose to put it on the short list.

This week – you may have noticed I am a day late in reviewing last week’s novel! – I will be reading The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan. I hope to finish my review before the announcement of the Man Booker prize tomorrow night. I also would like to add that despite my mostly negative reaction to To Rise Again at a Decent Hour last week, it has motivated me to start flossing again.

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris

Doctor Paul C O’Rourke is a dentist in New York whose life is sent upside down when a website, an email address, a twitter account and a facebook page are all set up in his name propounding the history and tenets of the Ulms. The Ulm aren’t just a religion, they are a people, a race that claims to be more persecuted than the Jews whose religious book, the Cantaveticles, includes an older version of the Biblical Job.

At first, Paul is outraged. He is an atheist who deplores all but the communal trappings of religion. But he has spent his life trying to belong, especially since his father’s suicide, and a religion that claims doubt as its binding principle, a religion that is also a family – all of them genetically linked to the original line of Ulms from the time of the Old Testament – is an appealing prospect. So far, the closest he has come to a family’s embrace, outside of his love for the Red Sox, is through the families of his respective girlfriends. He shares this desperation to belong with the leader of the newly formed Ulm and their online exchange moves from outrage to intrigue.

I suspect I missed the point of this novel. Though there were many moments when a comment would tickle my mind, or the witty and meticulous depiction of isolation and loneliness in the midst of a metropolis moved me to world-weary empathy, I simply wasn’t gripped. This is an interesting book about the god-hole we are all said to harbour within us, about what lengths people will go to in order to belong including fighting against those who don’t, but it remains ungrounded for me. Paul is himself too disconnected to give this roughshod ride through Catholicism, Judaism and Ulmism emotional punch. However, as I say, I think it may simply be that the novel didn’t speak to me as it will or does to others. I’d swap The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth into the shortlist for the Man Booker and To Rise Again at a Decent Hour back out onto the longlist. But if dental hygiene and a longing to belong are your bag, do read this and disagree with me.

Next week I’m reading The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee, followed by The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan.