Tag Archives: Guillermo Erades

Books of the Year 2016: Part Two

Cover imageAfter a stonking start to my reading year, the second instalment of 2016 favourites covers the four months from March to June with just eight books, beginning with a rediscovered American classic. First published in 1967, Thomas Savage’s The Power of the Dog requires a strong stomach to get through the first page but the rest of this wrenching novel makes the effort well worth it. Written in straightforward yet cinematic prose it tells the story of the Burbank brothers, owners of one of Montana’s biggest ranches and rich beyond reckoning yet still sharing the same room they’ve slept in for all but the few years they were at university. The publisher’s comparison with John Williams’ celebrated Stoner may seem extravagant at first but Savage’s novel proves itself to be more than worthy of it.

My second March novel seemed a little overlooked at the time – I hope the paperback publication has put that right. Opening in 1999, Guillermo Erades’ Back to Moscow follows a young PhD student as he parties his way around a city in the midst of transforming itself. Erades vividly evokes Moscow awash with people on the make while others look on in dismay, charting the changes from the invasion of expats – welcomed everywhere with open arms – to the rise of the oligarchs, Putin and the war in Chechnya. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this debut. What could easily have been a cheap and lurid hedonistic tale turns out to be very much more than that.

Harry Parker’s Anatomy of a Soldier was April’s surprise success for me. It took some persuasionCover image to get me to read it – its structure seemed too tricksy by half. Parker, a veteran of both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, tells the story of Captain Tom Barnes who steps on an improvised explosive device – just as Parker did – from the point of view of forty-five objects, ranging from the tourniquet tied around what’s left of Tom’s leg to his occupational service medal. Parker carries this off beautifully, managing to be both objective and extraordinarily vivid in his descriptions of what happens to Tom. It’s a thoroughly impressive and inventive piece of work. Not an autobiography but it’s impossible not to think of the author’s own experience when reading it.

If Anatomy of a Soldier’s structure sounds a little too unconventional for you best steer clear of May’s favourite. Nicola Barker’s The Cauliflower is an extraordinarily inventive, idiosyncratic interpretation of Sri Ramakrishna’s story, the avatar with whom she became fascinated as a child. It has two narrative strands running through it – neither chronological – with a multitude of diversions and devices, from recounting dreams to imagining the goings-on in the temple through the eyes of a swift equipped with a tiny camera. Barker frequently pulls the rug out from beneath her readers’ feet, contradicting and questioning what has gone before.

June made up for April and May’s sparse favourites with four winners for me, starting with one of the most talked about British novels of this year, at least in my neck of the Twitter woods. Set in 1885, Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent is the tale of a small group of people each of whom comes to their own conclusions about a winged serpent, first seen in 1669 and now thought to be roaming the marshes around Aldwinter. A novel of ideas all wrapped up in a riveting bit of storytelling and gorgeously vivid prose, it focuses on the passionate friendship between the recently widowed Cora, fascinated by the emerging theories about the natural world, and Will Ransome, Aldwinter’s pastor, determined to ignore the titular serpent’s effect on his parishioners. A very fine book indeed.

Cover imageMy second June favourite is Jill Dawson’s The Crime Writer which sprang from her self-confessed addiction to Patricia Highsmith’s novels. It’s based on Highsmith’s sojourn in Suffolk where she set herself up to be close to her married lover. Dawson divides her narrative between first and third person, making Highsmith the quintessential unreliable narrator, further unsettling her readers with her protagonist’s ceaselessly questioning, claustrophobic inner monologue. Dawson has a talent for working historical figures into her fiction – most notably Rupert Brooke in The Great Lover – but The Crime Writer is the ultimate in literary fan fiction. Absolutely engrossing even if, like me, you’re not a Highsmith aficionado.

Stephanie Danler’s Sweetbitter caught my attention for June’s preview when I speculated that it might merely be an entertaining piece of fluff but it turned out to be much better than that. It shares a restaurant backdrop with a January favourite, Merritt Tierce’s Love Me Back, this time in New York where Tess has fetched up having turned her back on smalltown Ohio. After proving her mettle, Tess catches the eye of both Simone, the restaurant’s expert sommelier, and Jake, its rakish bartender, and is drawn into the orbit of these two damaged personalities. It’s a thoroughly engrossing novel, hard to put down, and an acutely perceptive portrait of a young woman whose idealism is stripped from her.

The first half of the year was rounded off for me by the discovery of Icelandic author Sjón’sCover image writing through Moonstone. Set in 1918, this fable-like novella follows sixteen-year-old orphan Máni Steinn over the three months that Spanish influenza rages through Reykjavík. Mani funds his expensive movie habit by turning tricks, always on the lookout for Sólborg Gudbjörnsdóttir who zooms around the city on her red Indian motorcycle, dressed in black leathers, the very image of Musidora, the star of Máni’s favourite movie. There’s a gorgeously poetic, dreamlike quality to this book whose ending is extraordinarily beautiful – both fantastical and moving. Kudos to Victoria Cribb for such a sensitive translation of a remarkable piece of writing.

A click on any of the titles above will take you to my review of each of the books should you be interested. The third books of the year post will cover July and August, two months whose splendours rival those of January and February.

Paperbacks to Look Out for in November 2016

Cover imageA quiet month for paperbacks in November with the book trade in full swing for Christmas. Just four of interest for me, one of which I’ve already reviewed. Guillermo Erades’ Back to Moscow didn’t seem to get the attention it deserved when it was first published back in March and is in danger of the same thing happening given everyone has their eye on their Christmas present lists by the time it’s published. I hope I’m wrong about that. You won’t be surprised to hear that it’s set in Moscow, back at the beginning of the century when the city was stuffed full of expats with their eye on the main chance. It’s the story of a young man, studying for a PhD more because of happenstance than any burning desire, and the things he gets up to – a kind of Rake’s Progress, if you like, but what could easily have been a cheap and lurid hedonistic tale turns out to be very much more than that. Steeped in Russian literature where happy endings are at a premium, it’s also an atmospheric portrait of a city in the midst of transforming itself.

Uwe Tellkamp’s The Tower is set a decade or so before Back to Moscow, the tumultuous events which led to the eventual disintegration of the Soviet Union and its satellite states yet to come. The East German experience is reflected and refracted through the experiences of a soldier, a surgeon, a nurse and a publisher against the backdrop of Dresden. ‘With evocative detail, Uwe Tellkamp masterfully reveals the myriad perspectives of the time as people battled for individuality, retreated to nostalgia, chose to conform, or toed the perilous line between East and West. Poetic, heartfelt and dramatic, The Tower vividly resurrects the sights, scents and sensations of life in the GDR as it hurtled towards 9 November 1989’ say the publishers. Tellkamp was born in Dresden in 1968 and was arrested in 1989 for ‘political sabotage’ which suggests that this will be an insightful read.

Translated by the excellent Anthea Bell, Saša Stanšic’s Before the Feast may offer a little light relief after that. It sounds a little convoluted and the blurb gives a flavour far better than I can, not having read it: ‘It’s the night before the Feast in the village of Furstenfelde (population: declining), but not everyone is asleep. The local artist, wearing an evening dress and gum-boots, goes down to the lake under cover of darkness. The village archivist is kept awake by ancient tales that threaten to take on a life of their own. A retired lieutenant-colonel weighs his pistol, and his future, in his hand. And eighteen-year-old Anna, namesake of the Feast, prepares to take her place in tomorrow’s drinking and dancing, eating and burning. On this night of misdeeds and mischief, they are joined by a dead ferryman, a hapless bellringer, a cigarette machine, two robbers in football shirts and a vixen on the hunt – as their fates collide in the most unexpected ways’ which sounds quite extraordinary. Anthea Bell has replaced the late Carol Brown Janeway as my translator to watch so this one goes straight on the list despite any reservations about magic realism I might have.

My final choice is, unusually for me, a short story collection: Helen Simpson’s Cockfosters. Her smart, witty Cover imagecollection of linked stories Hey Yeah Right Get a Life had me hooked when it first came out. She’s very funny – sharply observant of human foibles but compassionate with it – which makes me keen to read Cockfosters. The link here is Tube stations which should appeal to London commuters and seems tailor-made for a Transport for London advertising campaign although it does venture outside the metropolis, opening ‘irresistible new windows onto the world from Arizona to Dubai and from Moscow to Berlin’ according to the publishers, neatly taking this post back to where it started.

That’s it for November. A click on a title will take you to a fuller synopsis for the last three titles and to my review for Back to Moscow. And if you’d like to catch up with November’s new titles they’re here.

Back to Moscow by Guillermo Erades: The story of a 21st-century superfluous man

Cover imageBack to Moscow came all wrapped up in orange ribbon along with a couple of other titles, one of which I had my eye on already thanks to Twitter. You won’t be surprised to hear that it’s set in Moscow, back at the beginning of the century when the city was stuffed full of expats with their eye on the main chance. Inevitably there’s a mention of A. D. Miller’s Snowdrops in the press release but this isn’t a thriller – it’s the story of a young man, studying for a PhD in Russian literature more because of happenstance than any burning desire, and the things he gets up to. A kind of Rake’s Progress, if you like. It’s also an atmospheric portrait of a city in the midst of transforming itself.

The novel opens in 1999. Martin has left Amsterdam, thrown out by his Russian girlfriend, and has found himself a scholarship to fund his doctorate on Chekov. He’s a little disconsolate. It’s been a lonely two weeks at the beginning of term but when he meets Colin and Diego in the student canteen the party begins. There’s always a party in Moscow if you’re an expat, so it seems, always a beautiful woman to take home for the night looking for opportunities. Martin and his ‘brothers’ are having the time of their lives, constantly on the razzle. Very little in the way of studying gets done, particularly when Martin picks up a lucrative part-time job with a Russian friend, posing as a Western businessman at his friend’s many meetings striking deals for this and that. Martin entertains an endless stream of ‘dyevs’ each one more gorgeous than the last, finding a way of working them into his ‘research’ and dallying with the idea of love with Lena but when he meets Tatyana it seems it may be time for him to grow up.

Martin is looking back on his time in Moscow and we know from the start that things won’t end well; hardly surprising for a novel steeped in Russian literature where happy endings are at a premium. Each section of the book begins with a short, snappy exposition of a book from the canon illustrating the national temperament – the ‘Mysterious Russian Soul’ as so many Russians Martin meets call it. Time and time again he’s told that life’s not all about the pursuit of happiness which he and his friends have immersed themselves in. Erades vividly evokes a city awash with people on the make while others look on in dismay, charting the changes from the invasion of expats – welcomed everywhere with open arms – to the rise of the oligarchs, Putin and the war in Chechnya. This is not a city for independent women – the ‘dyevs’ are often treated with contempt, interchangeable beauties simply there for sex and decoration while the only woman who is prepared to face Martin with the unvarnished truth is dumpy and a little plain. Martin mentions his plans to write a fictionalised story of his time in Moscow several times and I couldn’t help but notice that the well-travelled Erades spent some time in Russia. Not sure what I think about that but I am surprised at how much I enjoyed this debut. What could easily have been a cheap and lurid hedonistic tale turns out to be very much more than that.