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Javier Marías’s Venice

A fresh take on Venice

Our literary recommendations, including the latest from Javier Marías and a dark comedy from Israel

Our literary recommendations, including the latest from Javier Marías and a dark comedy from Israel

December/January 2017

JAVIER MARÍAS’S VENICE

Hiding behind tourist Venice is another city – more like a village, really – which Javier Marías, a Spanish novelist, brings to life in Venice: An Interior, with a pen dripping with misty magic. The Venetians are the focus of the book: self-centred and stubborn, music-mad show-offs, dwindling behind their watermelon-green shutters. They live in the city’s “shadow-self” – no shops, hotels, restaurants or bars, “only the essential elements, stone and water”. Also invisible to the tourist hordes are the other islands of the lagoon: the market-gardens of Sant’Erasmo, Vignole and Mazzorbo; San Lazzaro, home to an exquisite Armenian monastery beloved of Byron, and Torcello, where Hemingway binged on wine and sandwiches.

Venice lives in the minds of those that love it, while turning perceptions inside-out. Gardens abound when viewed from the Campanile, but from the ground the city is all stone and stucco. Distances are tiny, but getting lost is easy. “The narrow becomes wide, the near becomes far, the limited becomes infinite, the identical becomes distinct, the timeless becomes transient.” A few details betray the book’s original publication in Spanish – a derelict factory is now a posh hotel. But most of the author’s insights into La Serenissima are still bewitchingly fresh: in Venice, the important things don’t change. ~ EDWARD LUCAS

History girl

In a remote settlement in southern Argentina, the heroine of this enchanted adventure thinks that “her life was destined to unfold in the midst of strangeness simply because of the century” of her birth. For all his magical, even hallucinatory, qualities, the prolific Argentine writer César Aira often anchors dream-like stories in real history. Ema, the Captive, an early novel now translated into English, draws on 19th-century campaigns of conquest. Indomitable Ema leaves Buenos Aires as a human chattel, survives peril and kidnap by indigenous Indians, and thrives as a breeder of fancy pheasants in a “gigantic, everlasting Eden”. Catriel, a local chief whose idyllic domain of refined artistry and “mutual ecstasy” seduces Ema, really existed. And the forlorn European encampment where she first endures her exile as a soldiers’ concubine would grow into Aira’s own birthplace: the town of Coronel Pringles. Translated by Chris Andrews with grace and pace, Aira’s hypnotic prose glories in the natural beauties of this wild frontier. He revels in the mysterious “etiquette” of Indian culture, and plunges Ema into debates about finance or fate here “at the edge of the world”. It’s a sort of surreal Western, poetic and philosophical, beyond the imagination of John Ford, let alone John Wayne. ~ BOYD TONKIN

Flight and fantasy

Much like her critically acclaimed novel, “Eileen”, shortlisted for the Man Booker prize, Ottessa Moshfegh’s new collection of short stories, Homesick for Another World, mines the destructive impulses many of us vainly conceal. Her characters, riddled with dissatisfaction, search for the emotional and existential fulfilment that are otherwise absent from their humdrum lives.

In “Bettering Myself”, a schoolteacher with an alcohol problem, who regularly fabricates her students’ test results, finds self-realisation in weekend benders and courting her ex-husband. In “Mr Wu”, a voyeuristic old man becomes obsessed with a woman at his local computer arcade, sleeping with prostitutes while fantasising about a life with her. A recently widowed husband has an unexpected and bizarre sexual awakening in “The Beach Boy”. Moshfegh’s characters act on their unchecked desires, hoping to liberate themselves from the reality which they are unable, and sometimes unwilling, to escape.

“Homesick for Another World” is an impressive study of human vulnerability and self-deception, through which the reader is guided by a cynical and darkly funny literary voice. ~ NATHAN SMITH

Playing it for laughs

A 57-year-old man, his shrivelled skin dotted with ulcers, takes to the stage in a comedy club in a small Israeli town. The audience has come expecting jokes about rabbis and mothers-in-law, and for a while that’s what David Grossman gives them in his new novel, A Horse Walks into a Bar. At first the reader is right there with them, laughing at the comic Dovaleh G’s patter about the Holocaust and the awfulness of the town they call home. But then the mood changes subtly. It turns out that one member of the audience is a childhood friend of the comic who was invited just a few days earlier to come and be a witness. But to what?

With masterly control and brilliant timing (it’s not easy to write stand-up, let alone translate it into another language, as Jessica Cohen has done so well here) Grossman has Dovaleh tell his life story, starting with the night of his conception. An evening of comedy becomes a trial of self-laceration – of lovers betrayed, friends traduced and, right to its climactic final page, the pull of guilt that must be assuaged. “A Horse Walks into a Bar” has been called a “shocking and breathtaking read”. It may be Grossman’s finest novel yet. ~ FIAMMETTA ROCCO

A TALE OF MIGRATION

Winner of the 2013 Libris prize (the “Dutch Man Booker”), These Are the Names is a lyrical retelling of the Book of Exodus in which a small group of rain-drenched refugees somewhere on the eastern steppe of Mitteleuropa lies waiting for dawn “like the first humans on Earth”. Watching them is an ageing Jewish police commissioner named Pontus Beg, who in turn is searching for meaning in his own life. The author, Tommy Wieringa, is a master of contemporary atmosphere, as readers of two of his other novels, “Joe Speedboat” and “A Beautiful Young Wife”, will know. In “These Are the Names” American readers will find a different literary imagination here. Desperate wandering, possessions lost, glimmers of understanding and the possibility of redemption—these are ancient themes, made modern by Wieringa in a story of travellers taken in by traffickers who fake the border the refugees cross, thus tricking them into thinking they have escaped. With the meticulous brushwork of small colourful phrases (eloquently translated by Sam Garrett), this Dutch master vividly brings to life a world resonating with symbolism, metaphor and myth. ~ FIAMMETTA ROCCO

CITY OF AGES

Whether you are a visitor to Turkey or an armchair history buff Istanbul, as described by Thomas Madden, is a city that both fascinates and exasperates by virtue of its sheer elusiveness. It is a locus of mystery and power, as the partially intact Byzantine walls proclaim, but also a place of sudden vulnerability, to earthquakes, fires, riots and shifting geopolitical patterns. The successive phases in its existence, from Greco-Roman to Ottoman to modern Turkish, seem utterly different and yet each one flows into and informs the next. Mr Madden, a professor at America’s Saint Louis University, is an accomplished guide through these twisting channels and confluences in Istanbul: City of Majesty at the Crossroads of the World. A natural teacher, he packs most of the city’s past into a short, readable volume in which each era is brought alive by punchy anecdotes with vivid sketches of people and locations. Its strongest chapters describe the Byzantine period and bring home why the city (and the Christian East, generally) looked towards the West with a mixture of cultural arrogance and geopolitical suspicion. ~ Bruce Clark

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