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Autumn’s best books

Bridging the Bosphorus

Plus, dystopian China, Javier Marías’s spy stories and other literary notes

Plus, dystopian China, Javier Marías’s spy stories and other literary notes

October/November 2018

At the height of the Renaissance, Michelangelo, the most famous sculptor in the world, received a secret invitation from the Ottoman sultan to travel to Constantinople. The sultan wanted him to design a bridge over the Bosphorus to unite Europe with Asia, and promised the artist an extravagant sum. Michelangelo was intrigued by the challenge, not least because his rival, Leonardo da Vinci, had earlier presented his own design for the bridge, which had been judged a failure.

In May 1506 Michelangelo disembarks in the Ottoman capital after a six-day voyage across the Mediterranean in a frigate loaded down with sable and mink, woollen cloth, Bergamo satin, Florentine velvet, saltpetre, mirrors and a little jewellery box. The city draws him in, distracting him from the woes he has left behind in the troublesome court of Pope Julius II, and in time it becomes an inspiration.

French novelist Mathias Enard traces a parable about connections between the monotheistic Christian and Muslim faiths, about the many ways mankind has tried to use art and engineering to counter the forces of gravity, and about how people from other lands so often turn out to be less different from us than we think. Translated by Charlotte Mandell, Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants is a short but magical work.~ FIAMMETTA ROCCO

A Chinese nightmare
Ma Daode, the protagonist of Ma Jian’s wrenching new book, China Dream, is the pot-bellied director of the China Dream Bureau. This organ of state, which actually exists, is charged with promoting Xi Jinping’s “Chinese Dream of National Rejuvenation”, a vision of prosperity which the president announced soon after he came to power. In the imagination of the author, a dissident whose books have been banned in China for 30 years and who now lives in exile in London, its brief extends into microchips, which Ma Daode hopes to insert into Chinese brains to expunge all memories of the nation’s dark history.

But when Ma Daode sits in optimistic planning meetings discussing a mass golden-wedding anniversary, he is assailed by visions of the Cultural Revolution – of his parents’ persecution and suicide, the pesticide they drank foaming from their mouths; of kicking young men off the tops of buildings; of bloody streets and mass executions. Sharply translated by Flora Drew, “China Dream” makes President Xi’s vision of national prosperity look like a recipe for insanity.~ SIMON WILLIS

Silent witness
Turkey, 1915: two brothers, civil servants both, draft memorandums “necessary to devise a practical means of moving 10,000 Armenians”. Prague, during the Nazi occupation: a drab German boy, resentful of his Jewish neighbours’ easy charm, betrays them to the police. Manila, 1998: a young woman stands by as her lover is incarcerated for a crime she has committed. Looming over these three events is a figure swathed in thin black fabric, with bleeding feet and unblinking eyes, “patiently watching, patiently waiting, patiently biding its time”.

That figure is Melmoth – a woman “cursed to walk from Jerusalem to Constantinople, from Ireland to Kazakhstan”, who bears witness to humanity’s most wicked deeds. Drawing inspiration from Charles Maturin, Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker, Melmoth, Sarah Perry’s third novel, is a tale of sin, guilt and redemption.

“What the gothic always did was look very closely at...human transgression, human wickedness, and ask questions of the reader about their own conscience,” the author has said. By applying that gothic framing to both historical injustices and modern ones, such as the ill treatment of asylum-seekers, Sarah Perry’s “Melmoth” allows those questions to hang uneasily in the air. ~ RACHEL LLOYD

The wife’s story
Tomás Nevinson, the mysterious figure at the heart of Javier Marías’s new novel Berta Isla, is half-English, half-Spanish, and has a gift for pretending to be other people. He picks up languages the way ordinary people pick up groceries, and can mimic any accent. This makes him valuable to Bertram Tupra, a man of indeterminate nationality who runs shady British espionage operations. Recruited to the “foreign office” in the mid-1970s, Nevinson embarks on a secret life marked by long absences from Berta Isla, his wife in Madrid after whom the novel is named.

Fans of Marías will be familiar with this world from his trilogy “Your Face Tomorrow”, in which he spun a web of betrayal around Tupra’s spies. This novel, translated by Margaret Jull Costa, is told mostly from Berta’s point of view and is more personal. With her husband who knows where, she reads newspaper reports of Brits murdered in Northern Ireland or drowned during the Falklands war and imagines the worst. When Tomás comes home with new scars and a look of horror in his eyes, it seems that the longer they’re married the less she knows him. In one horrifying scene, a man who has befriended her spills lighter fluid on her sleeping baby. Was it an accident or a warning that Tomás’s work is endangering their child? From these uncertainties Marías weaves a thrilling and desolate meditation on the psychic costs of the deep state’s dark arts. ~ SW