October 2, 2014 § 1 Comment
One of the never ending discussions about books is whether the meaning comes from the reader or the writer. Of course, the answer is both, but where the balance lies is constantly shifting, and often circumstances and situation dictates this as much as the writing itself. Candia McWilliam’s ‘Debatable Land’ is full of rich metaphor and allegory, but reading it again, both during and after recent events surrounding the Scottish Referendum, I started to read things which may or may not have been originally intended, and some which I can guarantee were not.
The novel is set in two places and times. First off we are introduced to an odd collection of travellers. There are three Scots; Alec Dundas and Logan and Elspeth Urquhart, as well as Nick and Sandro, and the siren-like Gabriel, all of whom are on a sailing boat bound for New Zealand from Tahiti. Their boat is the ‘Ardent Spirit’ and the following passage explains why, where Alec discusses his first wife’s drinking:
“She said that, when her hours allowed her, she was happy drinking alone. It was I who made the pain. We were leaking money. Spirits cost more than fuel. It had to be spirits. It is a national obsession with the Scots, to ride the world having taken ardent spirits.”
The book is full of such wonderful and vibrant writing, and is a master class of how to layer prose, and use it to set a tone and tempo; often obscuring meaning as much as expressing it. ‘Debatable Land’ is as thoughtfully crafted as any poem, with such wonderfully arresting imagery and ideas that a second reading is not just desired but required. I doubt I’ll read a better sentence this year than “He thought of death so quickly all it did was give flavour to his wine.” No doubt, some will think it overwritten and purple, but while it is true you have to work hard to discover and understand McWilliam’s intentions, it is well worth the effort.
The book is about belonging, or rather if such a thing really exists, and if not, what ideas of nationality or state actually mean. The ‘debatable lands’ are conceptual as much as actual. Alec has taken to sea as he cannot find peace or settle on land, but it takes going to the other side of the world for him to start to contextualise and understand his relationship to and with Scotland. Another strand of the novel is memory, both individual and collective, and some of the most vibrant passages are when Alec thinks back to his younger life in Edinburgh.
The Edinburgh depicted is similar to that depicted in ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’, with a lot of architectural history explained as Alec takes us through the streets of both Old Town and New while he thinks about his upbringing and the life he has tried, and failed, to forget.
‘Debatable Land’ is reminiscent of Muriel Spark in its style, but the obvious comparison is with Robert Louis Stevenson, especially his ‘South Sea Tales’ (McWilliam admits this up front by quoting from ‘Songs of Travel’ at the beginning of the book). As with RLS, McWilliam looks at Scotland from at home and abroad, and she evokes the atmosphere and of both places beautifully. Edinburgh’s historical streets are lent a real austere, almost Calvinist, feel while the heat in the Pacific is palpable off the page.
In many ways this was the perfect time to revisit ‘Debatable Land’, and if you haven’t read it you really should. Technically, the term relates to the land of the Scottish/English Borders which has been claimed and claimed back over centuries, but McWilliam stretches that to comment on the whole of Scotland. There’s a passage in the novel where Elspeth discusses the relationship between Scotland and England (or ‘the South’, as she puts it, which perhaps refers more to the Tory heartland) which I haven’t been able to get out of my head in recent days, so I’ll leave you with it here:
“There could be a split. People want it. They sing about it. There was the fish, there is the oil. The stupidity of the South has hurt, the tactlessness that has looked like pillage, the willingness to treat the place like plaid, to throw on for its ancient rustic glamour and to throw over puddles to save them from getting their feet dirty.”
That was written in 1994, but could have been written yesterday, 40 years ago, or tomorrow. These lands have been debated for a long time and they will continue to be long into the future, and any vote and the accompanying result won’t stop that.
The books that we deal with in ‘Indelible Ink’ can be bought from the Dear Scotland shop:
Next Month’s Novel: I’m writing this while aboard one of the last coal-fire puffers in the world (it’s a long story), and it has put me on mind of Neil Munro. He is best remembered for writing the ‘Tales of Para Handy’, all of which took place on a puffer and which were immortalised on TV, but it is his final, I will argue best novel which I’ll look at next month.
‘The New Road’ is a historical murder/mystery, set in the time of the Jacobite rebellion, and it has been compared favourably with both Scott and Stevenson. Munro is an underappreciated writer, and this is an excellent place to start to discover his work.
August 21, 2014 § Leave a comment
We have said before in these columns that the early to mid-nineties in Scotland was one which was politically bleak, no matter what your persuasion was. The victory of the John Major led Conservatives in 1992’s UK election saw Labour victorious in Scotland, and with no power in the rest of the UK, the promised rise of the SNP fail to materialise, and, if you were a Tory, you could have held your victory celebration in an Edinburgh phone box. Many Scottish writers responded to this dire situation by writing about characters who couldn’t see a way to change things, so didn’t bother trying.
Prime examples of these are Irvine Welsh’s ‘Trainspotting’, Alan Warner’s ‘Morvern Callar’ and, explicitly, Duncan McLean’s misunderstood ‘Bunker Man’, all of which we have already discussed, but I can only think of two who had novels which dealt with the political landscape head on at the time, promoting direct action; Iain Banks’ 1993 novel, ‘Complicity’ and Christopher Brookmyre’s ‘Quite Ugly One Morning’. Both books are filled with anger and frustration towards Scotland’s political impotence and how that was being taken advantage of by politicians and big business alike. What separates the two is that Brookmyre makes you laugh out loud while doing so.
Brookmyre has said that his writing was influenced by Carl Hiaasen, Robertson Davies and Douglas Adams, but there is comparison to be made with Irvine Welsh, (few writers can write a scatological scene as these two can), and also William McIlvanney. ‘Quite Ugly One Morning’ has been called ‘the book that gave us Tartan Noir’, but McIlvanney was arguably writing that before anyone even new what it was, and with Jack Parlabane, Brookmyre created a central character who could stand toe-to-toe with McIlvanney’s ‘Laidlaw’.
Parlabane becomes involved with a brutal, and downright weird, murder case which has happened in his building, and leads him to begin an investigation which uncovers the sort of corruption which is surely inevitable when you bring in capitalist-minded businesses to be involved in your national health service. But, the inevitability doesn’t lessen the anger felt when it occurs, and for all that Parlabane crosses all sorts of lines to get to the bottom of the mystery, you are always on his side as those he comes up against are so repulsive and amoral.
Aside from Parlabane, all the characters are bold enough to be recognisable and memorable, but Brookmyre avoids stereotypes by playing with them, and with the readers’ expectations. If you have ever seen the Steve Martin movie ‘Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid’ you’ll have an idea of what I’m talking about. Brookmyre is aware of the conventions associated with noir and crime fiction, and he gives them a very modern, Scottish twist.
I hadn’t read ‘Quite Ugly One Morning’ since it was first published, and I was worried that it wouldn’t have dated well, but, the odd reference to Zalman King and Norman Tebbit aside, it is as relevant today as it was then, and a timely reminder that Scotland had long years with no political power to speak of, and how that was repeatedly abused as we were used as the testing ground for all sorts of unappealing acts and political experimentation. Brookmyre was right to be angry, and we should never allow that to happen again.
Brookmyre has gone on to become one of Scotland’s most reliable and readable writers, someone who never lets you down, something else he shares with the aforementioned, and sadly missed, Iain Banks, but ‘Quite Ugly One Morning’ is where it all began, and I urge you to read it if you haven’t already. If that’s the case, I advise you to get the latest edition, published by Abacus in 2013, which has a fascinating Introduction from Brookmyre explaining the background to the book, and just what a personal undertaking it was. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll be furious, and you’ll probably never eat a rum truffle again. But one lesson you should definitely learn is to never fuck with a Scottish landlady, especially when it comes to her dug.
The books that we deal with in ‘Indelible Ink’ can be bought from the Dear Scotland shop:
Next Month’s Novel: I thought a timely novel to look at next month would be Candia McWilliams’ ‘Debatable Lands’, her prize winning novel from 1994 which looked at the questions of Scottish devolution which were raging at the time.
Set in the South Pacific, the characters each have their own stance on what devolution would mean, and, indeed, they come to embody them. Looking back to those debates as Scotland decides its future should be enlightening and informative; at least that’s the plan.
July 10, 2014 § Leave a comment
In the last couple of years there was a lot of debate about which Scottish books and writers should be taught in Scottish schools as part of the set texts for the Higher English exam. If I had had a vote, Matthew Fitt’s ‘But n Ben A-Go-Go’ would’ve been in my top three choices for the prose element. Published to much acclaim in 2000, to describe it as a sci-fi novel, set in Scotland, and written in Scots would be accurate but doing it a great disservice as it is so much more. Fitt shows a mastery of language as well as giving a sharp commentary on Scotland then, now, and as it may well be.
Sci-fi is quite rare in Scottish writing, Iain M. Banks and Ken McLeod being the most notable purveyors, but in this case it is the perfect vehicle for what Fitt wants to achieve. The book is set in the year 2090, and melting polar ice-caps have caused ‘God’s Flood’ which has left Scotland mostly submerged except for a few ‘Parishes’, floating cities named after Scottish towns, which are all attached by cables to the now sunken town of Greenock. Living in such close proximity has led to the rapid spread of illness, and an new super virus, Senga, is the latest danger on a long list to threaten inhabitants, and which makes actual sex, as opposed to virtual, too risky.
If all of this sounds unremittingly bleak, then the novel is far from that. There are wonderful touches of knowing humour in the book, with references to ‘a Jeremiah Menzies plastipoke’, the ‘Evelyn Glennie Music Faculty’ and Oasis’s ‘Goodbye Planet’ World Tour. But, fittingly, most of the comedy is black in hue, and Fitt’s vision of the futurem is bleak, with Global Warming taking a terrible toll, a totalitarian government in control, and those who are ill contained rather than cured.
As with Anthony Burgess’ ‘A Clockwork Orange’, a dystopian future setting allows the unusual use of language even more impact than it may have had otherwise, fitting a world we are not used to. In the case of ‘But n Ben A-Go-Go’, the language is an incredibly rich mixture of Scots from all over the country, and it is easy to imagine that in the years between now and when events take place there will have been such a cross-fertilisation of dialects and phraseology. If you live in Scotland there are many words you’ll recognise no matter where that may be, and that allows you to put the ones you don’t into context. This is close to what Hugh MacDiarmid was aiming for with his promotion of the use of ‘Lallans’ which he foresaw as being a hybrid of Scots dialects as well as some English. Here’s just one great example of what to expect from Fitt’s prose:
“Puggled. Snochterin. Paolo’s broo wis creeshit, the oxters o his battle tunic mawkit wi swite. The craitur’s guff wis on his claes. Owre his hauns. The caircass, no ten yaird’s doon the brae, wis awready stertin tae ming in the foreninn heat.”
Matthew Fitt, along with James Robertson, founded Itchy Coo which publishes books in Scots for children and young people, and he has been at the forefront of promoting Scots as a language to be used in Scottish schools, and not left in the playground. As he says at the end of the handy ‘How To Read But n Ben A-Go-Go’;
“Once the initial culture-shock – of seeing words your granny liked tae use and your mither tellt ye no tae use in the unusual setting of a modern novel set in the future – subsides, the reader should be able to relax and enjoy the story.”
You will enjoy the story, and it will take less work than you think, but that generational shift is important to note; the fact that many of us will recognise that for decades speaking in our own language, and that of our forefather and mothers, was not only discouraged but was often punished. That can’t be right, and we should make sure that situation, for all sorts of reasons, never happens again.
The books that we deal with in ‘Indelible Ink’ can be bought from the Dear Scotland shop:
Next Month’s Novel: The term ‘Tartan Noir’ is one which has taken hold in recent years, so much so that there are festivals devoted to nothing else. For a while there has been a bit of sniffiness at this branch of genre fiction, but it’s the case that some of Scotland’s best writers are to be found proudly sitting under that banner.
One of the very best, whose work has arguably had more effect on recent Scottish writing than any other, is Christopher Brookmyre. Dark, funny, and savage, his debut novel, ‘Quite Ugly One Morning’ is the perfect introduction to his own take on Tartan Noir.
June 14, 2014 § 1 Comment
The history of Polygon Books is one of the most interesting in Scottish publishing. From its beginnings as an arm of Edinburgh University Press it quickly became known as a home for experimental and challenging writing, something it still does better than most to this day. Frank Kuppner’s 1989 novel, ‘A Very Quiet Street’ is a prime example of this. It was part of Polygon’s Sigma series of books, which set out to “ ..challenge the barriers between disciplines. It will include weird fictions, half-truths, plagiarisms, anarchisms…”. A ‘Very Quiet Street’ contains some, or perhaps all, of those; it depends on how you choose to read it.
It is described on the cover as ‘a novel, of sorts’, and this immediately puts you on the back foot. Kuppner himself is the narrator and the book begins as an exploration into an apparent miscarriage of justice in the case of Oscar Slater, an infamous trial and conviction which occurred in Glasgow in the early part of the 20th century. The case was one which caught the attention of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who was to write about it himself, and his thoughts on the matter are to be found throughout Kuppner’s investigation. There are a couple of reasons not to worry if you are not aware of the case. Firstly, Kuppner sets out the events as reported before Chapter One, and secondly, it doesn’t really matter because, as the book unfolds, it becomes about so much more.
So far, so unlike any novel you have encountered. If you have been reading the books which feature on these pages (and I hope at least some of you have), then this is a little similar to Andrew Crumey’s ‘Pfitz’ in that it is a “who done it?”, (and who didn’t do it?), which shares an obsession with architecture, the construction of cities, and of stories. That last point is key, as Kuppner looks at how stories are told and unfold, and how the ‘truth’ is arrived at from differing points of view (think Kurosawa’s ‘Rashomon’, or Tarantino’s ‘Jackie Brown’, but set in Glasgow, and you have a small idea of what occurs).
The style of how the book is constructed is interesting on many levels with short chapters, many unreliable witnesses (including our narrator), reportage, (auto)biography, travelogue and finally philosophical and moral meditation. You may think I have over used brackets in this column, but that is nothing to how Kuppner uses them (the only punctuation to rival their use is the full stop and the question mark), and it takes a great deal of concentration to follow what is separated from the main text, and why.
You don’t have to be from Glasgow to enjoy the book, but it undoubtedly helps as Kuppner takes the reader through the streets of the city, concentrating on the Charing Cross area where the original crime took place. Kuppner became interested in the story as he was born and raised in the close where it occurred (or was he?) and the book is also an autobiography of his life. He tells his own tale through his relationship to the Oscar Slater case, his encounters with strangers, his life in libraries, and his walks through the city. You could say that the book moves from being about Slater, to Kuppner, to everyone, but that would be far too simplistic, and Kuppner weaves together these three strands with many more.
‘A Very Quiet Street’ is also a fascinating history of Glasgow’s architecture as well as an examination of Scotland’s famed system of justice (with its third verdict of ‘Not Proven’). As it draws to a close it becomes more of a treatise on good and evil, or rather guilt and innocence. This is a novel of many parts, and multi-facets. To say it is ‘a novel, of sorts’ is to underplay its ambition and impact. When you consider that Alasdair Gray’s ‘Lanark’ was perhaps the most influential Scottish novel of the day, you suspect that was a major inspiration on Kuppner. Indeed, in the last paragraph of the book he mentions a ‘Burgess. A.’ (Anthony Burgess called Alasdair Gray “the best Scottish novelist since Walter Scott”) and a ‘Gray. A.’, which confirms such suspicions. Perhaps ‘A Very Quiet Street’ is Kuppner’s answer to Gray’s call to arms in ‘Lanark’ that Glasgow, ‘a magnificent city that no-body notices’, needed greater artistic representation to become better noticed both at home and abroad. If so, he does that with a style and invention that is all his own.
The books that we deal with in ‘Indelible Ink’ can be bought from the Dear Scotland shop:
Next Month’s Novel:
There has been a distinct absence of sci-fi on these pages, and that’s something I will put right next month with Matthew Fitt’s ‘But n Ben A-Go-Go’. Set in the year 2090, in a Scotland flooded due to climate change, the country is literally divided between high-land and lowland.
If the thought of anything sci-fi leaves you cold, then I would ask you to put that aside and give this novel a chance as the real triumph is in Fitt’s use of language, a Scots/English hybrid that allows the text a richness, and strangeness, to matche the subject matter perfectly.
May 7, 2014 § 2 Comments
The historical novel often gets a bad press, especially in Scotland where Sir Walter Scott has cast a long, and unfairly prejudicial, shadow. As if to prove my point, this month’s novel, ‘Fair Helen’ by Andrew Greig, is inspired by the Border ballad, ‘Fair Helen of Kirkconnel Lea’, which was published by Scott in Volume II of ‘The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border. But, if talk of Sir Waldo is putting you off, then think again. ‘Fair Helen’ is a thrilling tale set in a time and place which deserve to be discovered and explored.
Hugh MacDiarmid once proclaimed “Not Burns, Dunbar”, meaning that Scots should be looking further back than Robert Burns, Walter Scott and James Hogg to the early makars, such as William Dunbar and Robert Henryson, to understand best its own history or culture, and this is exactly what Greig does in his novel. Set in the late 16th century, the narrator is Henry Langton, an educated and well travelled man who is called back to Scotland to aide his friend, Adam Fleming, who believes himself in grave danger. This sets the scene for swordplay, affairs of the heart, discussions about Athenian democracy, references to Michel de Montaigne, and ballad mongering at its best.
If you know your Scottish ballads, you may be aware of why Adam is so afeart for his life. He has fallen for the legendary charms of Helen of Annandale, who is the ‘Fair Helen’ of the novel’s title. What unfolds is a classic love triangle, with Harry on the sidelines to report events, (another common literary technique used in Scottish literature. Think Edward Waverley in Scott’s ‘Waverley’ – damn, I mentioned him again). The story behind the song has been referred to as Scotland’s ‘Romeo & Juliet’, but Greig takes that idea to weave a story which touches on the politics and obsessions of the day, and beautifully portrays a time in Scotland’s history where town and country living was starting to become distinctly different.
I was drawn to ‘Fair Helen’ as this is a part of Scotland I know well, having been brought up for some of my childhood, in and around Annandale. When my mum found out about this book she was excited as she grew up knowing about Fair Helen and Adam Fleming, and many of the other ballads from that part of Scotland. It is a rich and rewarding tradition, and if you are not aware of it then ‘Fair Helen’ is a great place to start.
Greig has written a novel which captures 16th century Scotland, but with a vivacity, and often crudity, which would make Chaucer, or indeed Henryson, proud. There are enough belches, farts and double entendres to cater for the basest reader. Imagine Alasdair Gray crossed with James Hogg and you have an idea what to expect.
Greig’s language is perhaps the book’s greatest triumph, as he manages to use the Scots of the time but make it seem exactly what it would have been, everyday speech. There is an index at the back if you wish to know the exact meaning of ‘clart’, ‘cleuch’ or ‘coory’, but my guess is that you won’t need to as you’ll know more of these words than you may think, and even if you don’t it doesn’t spoil the enjoyment of the book. That’s the greatest achievement of ‘Fair Helen’; it is a timely reminder, if anyone needed one, that Scotland has a rich and varied history, language and culture to be explored, to be shared, and to be proud of.
*’Fair Helen’ is dedicated in memory of Gavin Wallace, who, as Greig writes ‘…cared for our literature and its makars.’. I would like to echo those sentiments here as Wallace, who passed away last year, was a man whose enthusiasm for Scottish writing and writers was inspirational to me, and many others.
Next Month’s Novel: Frank Kuppner’s ‘A Very Quiet Street’ is described as ‘a novel, of sorts’ and is as enigmatic as that description suggests. It is part investigative journalism, part tour of Glasgow and part autobiography…or is it?
Written to be one of Polygon Books Sigma series of the late 1980s, which set out to challenge the perceived notions of what literature could be, it is one of those books which keeps you guessing until the very end not only because of the content, but due to the style and form itself. And then you have to start again to see just what you’ve missed.
April 12, 2014 § Leave a comment
One of most eagerly anticipated film of recent years, at least round these parts, was Jonathan Glazer’s ‘Under The Skin’, much of which was shot on the streets of Glasgow, with an (almost) unrecognisable Scarlett Johansson in the lead role. You can read my review of the film over at Scots Whay Hae!, but news of the film sent me back to the source novel, Michel Faber’s ‘Under The Skin’, a book which blew me away when it was published back in 2000, and now I have re-read it it is even better than I remember, offering up lots of new secrets, insights and in-jokes second time around.
The book focuses on the life and work of Isserley, a very unusual woman whose job is to pick up suitable hitchhikers on the A9 and take them back to Ablach Farm in the Scottish Highlands for processing. Only the finest specimens are selected, and she takes her time making sure they are suitable for her employer’s requirements. She is the hunter and gatherer who has been adapted for a very specific purpose.
* If you haven’t read the book, then the rest of this column contains spoiler. To enjoy the full affect go away and do so first, then come back to us.*
Isserley is part of a team of aliens who have come to earth to farm the best humans for their meat, which is to be sent back to their home planet as a prohibitively expensive delicacy. Isserley takes to the road to pick up those men who won’t be missed, therefore preventing attention falling on their operation. To pass as a human she has been shaved and has had major surgery to allow her to walk on two legs rather than the usual four. She has also had a pair of large breasts added to her to seduce the men to get into the vehicle in the first palce. This has rendered her looking “half Baywatch babe, half little old lady”. The sad thing is, this simple and primitive plan works as only one of those who takes a seat beside her looks past her chest to notice that she is a very strange looking woman indeed. Actually, the sad thing is that this is quite believable.
Isserley feels nothing for these men to begin with, and has no desire to see what happens once she hands them over to the farm hands, but the arrival of Amlis Vess, a handsome young aristocrat from home, causes her to consider what she is doing. He is, for want of a better term, an animal rights activist, and believes that this farming of local livestock is wrong. When he releases some of the captives it causes havoc, as they are no longer in any shape to look after themselves, and have to be hunted down and recaptured or destroyed. He is an idealist with no understanding of what happens on the farm, but his actions cause Isserley to have her own doubts.
Faber goes into detail about the processes which the captives have to go through to be fit for purpose, and they are truly horrific. They are also truly accurate when you compare them to many of the farming techniques undertaken to sate our love of, for example, veal, foie gras, or even a simple roast chicken. The comparisons aren’t subtle, but they are very effective as a result.
Isserley begins to realise that these men she picks up all have stories to tell, and people who love them. Her own isolation and situation, with her now being neither one thing nor the other, means that she begins to understand them more. Crucially, she also begins to understand their language more, which is when she starts to feel empathy, and that puts her in a dangerous position. Her growing belief that she shares something with these creatures proves to be her downfall, as she comes to realise that what they share is also the ability to be cruel and destructive
‘Under The Skin’ is one of those unputdownable books; you have to get to the very end to get the whole story, and then you want to start all over again to see what clues you missed first time round. It is so layered that you keep coming across connections to other films and books when you least expect it, all of which adds to your understanding of what Faber is trying to achieve. My favourite is the use of the line from the original Planet of the Apes, “Get your stinking paws off me” which Isserley utters when she is attacked by one of her passengers, with the rest of the quote “you damn dirty ape” only implied.
You can read ‘Under the Skin’ on many levels; sci-fi thriller, horror, satire or even philosophical treatise, but however you do you can’t get away from how well it is written. It is not a case of style over substance though, and Faber is always looking at the bigger picture. By tackling some important themes with humour and horror he has managed to make a book about aliens farming humans in the Scottish Highlands one of the most involving books you will read in a long time.
The books that we deal with in ‘Indelible Ink’ can be bought from the Dear Scotland shop:
Next Month’s Novel: It can be argued that Scotland is the birthplace of the historical novel, with Sir Walter Scott being the granddaddy of them all. Unfairly derided by some, such novels continue to be hugely popular, and the history of Scotland remains particularly attractive.
Andrew Greig is perhaps best known for his poetry, but he is also a novelist, and his 2013 novel, ‘Fair Helen’, is a fantastic addition to the historical genre. Based on the Border ballad ‘Fair Helen of Kirkconnel Lea’, it is a love story rich with Scots’ language and imagery, and if you are not familiar with the Border ballads, it is the perfect introduction to one of Scotland’s finest storytelling traditions.
March 8, 2014 § Leave a comment
Could a small nation, with a history of being part of a larger whole, become independent with its own version of the pound and its own parliament, no army, but under the protection of NATO due to its strategic position? Could it not only survive, but thrive? It’s an intriguing question, and anyone interested in finding the answer should read Margaret Elphinstone’s 2002 novel ‘Hy Brasil’. It has plenty of political interest, and intrigue, but it is also one of the most outright entertaining reads of the books featured in ‘Indelible Ink’; a boy’s own adventure with adult concerns.
Imagine Robert Louis Stevenson were writing today. There could still be tales of pirates, smugglers, island life and rumours of treasure, but now the contraband would be more likely drugs than pieces of eight. All of these things are referenced or alluded to in ‘Hy Brasil’, which is about an island of that name; one which runs its own affairs, and where the past and present are inextricably linked.
Nothing is as it seems, with even the opening premise built on deception. A writer, Sidony Redruth, has been commissioned to write the first ever travel book about the island after winning first prize in a competition. However, she faked her winning entry, and now struggles with the resulting guilt, while also realising that she has lucked her way to the opportunity of a life time. In the opening paragraph she proclaims “…I think I’d rather have travelling than sex.”, which seem more like a justification than a proclamation.
When we first meet Sidony she is sitting in Caliban’s Fast Food Diner, and the allusion to Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’ is not only deliberate, it is just one of the myriad of literary references which are peppered regularly throughout. She picks up a flier for ‘Ishmael’s Whale Watching Tours’, finds out about places on the island such as Hogg’s Cove, Dorado and Mt Prosper (there’s a map at the beginning of the book so readers have a clear sense of place). She discovers that the four founding fathers of Hy Brasil have the surnames ‘Baskerville’, Hawkins’, ‘Honeyman’ and’ Hook’, and the local newspaper is ‘The Hesperides Times’, and that’s all in the first chapter. There is even an ‘Isle of Despair’.
This is not a case of Elphinstone showing off her bookshelves; the sense of playfulness is unavoidable and constant. Hy Brasil itself is, according to Wikipedia, “a phantom island which was said to lie in the Atlantic Ocean, west of Ireland. In Irish myths it was said to be cloaked in mist, except for one day each seven years, when it became visible but still could not be reached.” . As Sidony sits in Caliban’s, she is waiting for the famous fog to lift. You are never allowed to forget that this is an island of fiction, in more ways than one, and there are plenty of references which remind you that the novel is a construction of the imagination, (one of the coast guards’ lockers even bears the name ‘R. Elphinstone’). As a result you are never sure what to believe.
‘Hy Brasil’ is a novel which could be described as magical realist, and there is more than a hint of the influence of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Louis de Bernieres. There is certainly the romance and mystery which both of those writers do so well, but also there are the political and social details of the strange lands they are writing about, which is where the realism resides. Elphinstone outlines the public transport system of Hy Brasil, the exchange rate, how the parliament decided which side of the road to drive on, and how trade was maintained. If that all sounds dull as dishwater, then I have misled you. It gives detailed background to the other strands in the novel which lends them a reality which they may not deserve. As a result the events seem even more strange. When the land itself, a character in its own right, appears to rebel against those who inhabit it, you have a clear sense of just what it is it may be rebelling against.
The books that we deal with in ‘Indelible Ink’ can be bought from the Dear Scotland shop:
Next Month’s Novel: One of the most eagerly anticipated films of recent years is out in the next month; Jonathan Glazer’s ‘Under The Skin’, which stars Scarlett Johansson as an earth bound alien who prowls the streets of Glasgow looking for men.
Sounds unlikely? Well, next month’s novel will look at the source material for the film, Michel Faber’s book of the same name, which is quite a remarkable read. Dark, deadly, macabre and mysterious, if you haven’t experienced it yet, I can promise you are in for a strange and intriguing treat.
February 6, 2014 § Leave a comment
I first came across the term ‘The Big Music’ with reference to The Waterboys in the early 1980s. It was the name of a track on their 1984 album, ‘A Pagan Place’ and I think it was Mike Scott, in an interview from that time, who explained this was what the band aimed to make; music that looked at the wonders of the natural world, and tried to capture that in an ‘epic’ manner. This label was soon applied to other bands such as Echo and the Bunnymen, U2, Simple Minds (before all three upped the levels of production), Hot House Flowers and In Tua Nua, but no-one would come as close to fulfilling Scott’s template as those early Waterboys’ albums.
Reading the opening of Kirsty Gunn’s equally epic novel ‘The Big Music’ I had an inkling of where the music obsessed Scott may have been inspired to talk this way in the first place. Gunn’s uses the term as a definition of pìobaireachd, a classical composition form of the Highland bagpipe. If I can quote from the book;
“It is music that is written to be played outside or in a wide open space that may best set off its sound and range and scale, addressing large themes of loss and longing, of recognition and salute and farewell…And so is music that cannot make itself be small.”
Large in scale, all encompassing, and ‘addressing themes of loss and longing’, that is at the heart of ‘The Big Music’, and is a perfect description of Gunn’s novel. It is one of the most ambitious to feature on these pages, and it is not only about music, but is inspired by music; in the rhythm of the language, and in the lives of the characters. It is a lament for the past, for the passing of time, and for the loss of a culture, (of which music is only a part), which is unavoidable as a consequence.
By concentrating on the much maligned bagpipe, you may think that this sounds as if it is a novel obsessed with its own Scottishness, but all of the above will be applicable to other cultures wherever they are found, and it should be noted, although not overplayed, that Gunn is originally from New Zealand. What it does create is an unforgettable sense of place by looking not only at the people, but the landscape which shaped them, and the culture which arose from both.
The central character is John Sutherland, and the novel opens with him striding the hills of Sutherland in the Highlands with a tune in his head and a baby in his arms. He feels that this course of action is the only way he can capture the tune as he needs to. From this arresting introduction Gunn creates a world which the reader has to inhabit as completely as John does, as he recounts a personal and shared history that he fears will be lost as he nears the end of his own life.
There has been a lot of talk recently about the best Scottish novels, and if Kirsty Gunn’s ‘The Big Music’ isn’t on everyone’s list then I can only assume it is because those people haven’t read it yet. It is breathtaking in its attention to detail, and the prose has a wonderful lyricism which matches the novels themes. Other voices from member of John’s family punctuate his story, and their reaction to what unfolds adds layers of emotion and perspective to proceedings. Lovers of footnotes and appendices are in for a treat, and they fill in the gaps in terms of history, geography and even geology. There is also a List of Additional Materials, and you don’t have to know your lullaby from your lament or your taorluath from your urlar as there is a glossary of terms as well. Complex and involving, and demanding of its readers, ‘The Big Music’ makes you reconsider your own relationship with music, your culture and your country, both past and present.
Next Month’s Novel: Margaret Elphinstone’s ‘Hy Brasil’ is that rarest of beasts, a Scottish magical-realist novel, and is a must read for lovers of Robert Louis Stevenson, as it includes piracy, smuggling, political intrigue and romance set against an exotic backdrop.
Other literary references include Shakespeare, Conan Doyle and James Hogg, but you do not need to know these to enjoy the book. It is a delight from start to finish, and can be read on any level you wish. As unexpected as it is welcome, ‘Hy Brasil’ adds yet another layer of intrigue to the complex picture that makes up Scottish literature.
December 5, 2013 § 1 Comment
In these columns talk has often turned to common themes in modern Scottish literature, but I hope the previous 49 novels, when taken as a whole, show as much diversity as unity, with different voices sometimes dealing with the same topics, but more often realising something completely new. In case this hasn’t come across, this month’s novel, Andrew Crumey’s ‘Pfitz’, unarguably stands on its own. It covers philosophy, literature, architecture, morality and even (psycho)geography, and Crumey has great fun uniting these themes to create a memorable one-off.
From the opening pages ‘Pfitz’ asks questions about existence, creation and art, introducing a Prince who desires to create the ideal city of Rreinnstadt, one which will only ever exist on paper, and if that seems a strange concept we have only just begun. To realise his creation he needs not only cartographers, to map the city , but also biographers, to bring the subjects of Rreinnstadt to life, and it is in these people’s lives, while they busy themselves creating other people’s lives, that the intrigue begins.
What drives the novel is unrequited love, as a cartographer, Schenck, seeks to get close to and impress a biographer, Estrella, by professing to have discovered the lost story of ‘Pfitz’, a servant to Count Zelneck, which Schenck has written himself. His ‘fiction’ uncovers mysteries and possibly murder in both worlds, and it is not only the reader who starts to question just what is real and what are ‘mere’ stories.
The novel it most resembles is Voltaire’s satire on 18th century western society ‘Candide’ as, like that text, it contemplates exactly what makes a society and the individuals who constitute it, but ‘Pfitz’ also touches on the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes, Immanuel Kant and David Hume. In fact, the city under construction reminds me of Hume’s Edinburgh, when the whole ‘personality’ of that city was being changed with the planning and construction of the New Town, something seen as modern and idyllic. If you ever wanted proof of how a city is changed by how it is built then look at Edinburgh before and after this time and you will find it.
As Schenck continues his deceit in pursuit of Estrella he discovers other inconsistencies and irregularities, as some biographers are found to have been living vicariously through their subjects, even becoming confused as to which life is which. And this is the big idea from which all the others arise from in ‘Pfitz’, namely “What does it mean to exist, and who determines our lives?” Or, as Edgar Allan Poe put it, “Is all that we see or seem, but a dream within a dream?” Don’t expect any answers, but you’ll have great times thinking about it. This is not a novel to simply read, it demands not only your attention, but interaction.
‘Pfitz’ is an unapologetically clever novel of ideas, but it is also a love story, a murder/mystery, a fantasy and a comedy full of lust, revenge, treachery and dancing bees. Among the many theories it posits is that the reason any art is created is to ultimately impress someone who you desire, and that is one of those theories that is hard to disagree with, far more disprove. Even writing these reviews; you could ask who are they for, and why are they written? On reflection, I think I can answer that, but luckily I’ve just run out of words…
Next Month’s Novel: New Zealand born Kirsty Gunn is one of Scotland’s best writers and it is an oversight on my part that she hasn’t yet appeared on these pages, but I will rectify that next month.
Her most recent novel, ‘The Big Music’, was many critics book of the year for 2012. Set against the backdrop of the Scottish Highlands, like ‘Pfitz’ it questions what it means to create, and specifically how the form of music relates to the culture which shapes it.
November 4, 2013 § Leave a comment
One of the best things about reading books written in and of the country you live in is that they give you new perspectives on the familiar and everyday, making you look again at places and people you had long since taken for granted. In the last few years I have read work by English, Irish, Norwegian, Bulgarian, Zimbabwean, American and Chinese writers who live and write in Scotland, and their work is invaluable in creating a clearer picture of what a modern, multi-cultural, Scotland is like. If anyone tells you that doesn’t matter, they are wrong.
Leila Aboulela’s 1999 novel ‘The Translator’ makes the reader reappraise Scotland, and Aberdeen in particular. Sammar is the translator of the title; a Sudanese widow who is carrying guilt and grief in equal measure, and they are threatening to stop her living her life. The grief comes from the sudden death of her husband, Tarig, and her guilt lies in the fact that she has taken her young son, Amir, back to Khartoum to live with her family while she returns to work in Aberdeen. Actually, the real guilt comes from the fact that she doesn’t miss him.
She works at the university, and it is there she meets Rae Isles. Rae is an academic in Oriental and Islamic studies, although not a Muslim himself. This is something which confuses and frustrates Sammar as she grows more attracted to him. She needs him to convert to have any chance of marrying him, something she dreams of, yet she cannot propose this directly for fear of rejection. This cultural clash is at the heart of the novel, as Sammar tries to balance her belief system with not only that of Rae, but the city which surrounds her.
As the days count down to her leaving to return to Sudan, she tries to imagine and construct a future where she and Rae can be together, but wherever she turns she finds cultural, social, religious and linguistic differences are placed in their way, and she isn’t sure they can be overcome. The more she begins to understand Rae, all she can see is ultimate failure.
I have to mention the language in the novel. There is some of the most elegant prose you can imagine on show. In the opening chapters Sammar takes ill, and goes home with ‘eyelids heavy as coins’. Later, Rae proclaims that ‘loneliness is Europe’s malaria’, and there are many such poetic turns of phrase for the reader to savour and consider. While in Aberdeen, Sammar contemplates which is more blue, a tin of Nivea or the Nile? To her, colours, even in nature, are washed out and less vivid in Scotland, yet when she returns to Khartoum she does so wearing sunglasses as the sky is too blue. Like many who settle in more than one place, the concept of ‘home’ becomes a confusing one.
It had been years since I had read ‘The Translator’, and if it is the same for you I would urge you to revisit it. After recent, and indeed current, global events, the way it examines clashes of culture, and particularly religions, seems both prophetic and prescient. When Sammar worries that Rae may not be Christian after all, but an atheist, she cannot comprehend such a thing. She could understand that he believes in a different god, but not to believe in any; that is unthinkable. As Sammar says about translations, ‘meanings can be translated but not reproduced’. Rae and Sammar may understand each others words, but not what lies behind those words. But, as the end of the novel unfolds, it reminds us that if we do not understand each other at first, or at second, it should not stop us trying but should encourage us to try harder.
Next Month’s Novel: Next month’s Indelible Ink is the 50th edition, and to celebrate we are setting a competition with a quite spectacular prize, the details of which will appear on these pages in the coming days, so keep an eye out for that.
The featured novel is Andrew Crumney’s ‘Pfitz’, a comic mystery which touches upon history, philosophy and cartography. It is one of those novels which have been largely forgotten, and which deserves to be read more widely. Based on the life of an eccentric 18th Century German prince, it is yet another example of the diverse nature of Scottish writing.