Friday, 29 December 2017

Winter by Karl Ove Knausgaard

A Wikipedia to the Winter

Like many people, I suspect, the pre Christmas tendency for post work drinks seriously curtailed my ability to spill the ink on any of the great titles I read throughout December. Don't get me wrong, I continued to read but just couldn't squeeze any time to sit down and review. Needless to say, some time off between Christmas and New Year could not have come sooner.

Winter is the second in a quartet of books conceived as a personal encyclopaedia about the world, written by a father to his unborn child. I previously reviewed Autumn back in October and decided then that I'd read the next instalments as soon as they were published, and here I am. 

The book includes some 60 prose pieces covering everything from 'The Moon' to 'Windows' via 'Toothbrushes' and 'Buses'. Each section is little more than a daily musing but together the sections form a wikipedia of the Winter through the eyes of a brilliant writer, a hygge-pedia if you like. Whilst publishers everywhere rush to capitalise on the trend for all things hygge Knausgaard produces a work that offers an authentic slice of warming Nordic honesty and realism. 

Nestled between riffs on 'Atoms' and 'Sugar' is a section concerning Loki "one of the most significant figures in Norse mythology" which adds a drama perhaps missing from Autumn. Knausgaard argues that since earthquakes still occur "our present time must be after Baldr's death but before Ragnarok". The epic continues when Knausgaard compares a bus conductor to the legendary author of The Iliad "always calm, always confident, this king of fiction, this Homer of coins". 

New for Winter is a collaboration with Swedish watercolourist Lars Lerin whose illustrations appear before each chapter. Like Knausgaard, Lerin choses subject matter which captures the magical Scandinavian Winter, such as the frozen lake before 'February', with a nod to the beauty of the everyday with the painting of the roadside diner before 'December'.

Lerin's work, when showed at the Nordiska Akvarellmuseet (North of Gothenburg), was said to "embrace both sadness and warmth, melancholia and warmth" which strikes me as the ideal paring with Knausgaard's writing which always values truth over gloss.

I read this novel in part on the Eurostar between St Pancras and Gare du Nord. Thanks Eurostar for the handy reading lights in Standard Premium!

Winter by Karl Ove Knausgaard with illustrations by Lars Lerin published by Harvill Secker, 254 pages.     

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Monday, 11 December 2017

My Cat Yugoslavia by Pajtim Statovci

"The human mind is fragile and it can tear at any time"

Early on in Pajtim Statovci's highly original debut novel his protagonist Bekim meets a handsome, charismatic and talkative cat in a gay bar. Bekim observes the cat loping "contentedly from one place to the other, chatting to acquaintances in order to maintain a smooth balanced social life". For a young man like Bekim who lives alone, with only a boa constrictor for company, the socially confident and handsome Cat is alluring and promptly invited to move in.

Just as you're about to reside this story to a whimsical tale about a lonely and confused man Statovci introduces increasingly personal layers to the narrative that expose some profound truths about Bekim, a man like Statovci, who finds himself living in Finland as an outsider having, along with his family, fled his home in Kosovo as a child.

Structurally the story flips between Bekim's narrative and that of his mother some twenty years before at home in Kosovo marrying and starting a family. Initimate family portrayals of life in the Balkans are rare in English language fiction and Statovci fills the gap expertly. As tensions rise in the region and the family look to begin a life elsewhere we feel every desperate heart beat that drives their ambition. A life in Finland must be brighter than the fear of conflict the family escape from.

Finland through the eyes of Bekim and his siblings is hostile and cold. Bekim does everything he can to find the "freedom to do everything differently" from his own parents but escaping the label of 'immigrant' proves impossible. The very worst racism and xenophobia is brilliantly articulated by the Cat who turns against Bakim in spite of the accommodation and food he provides.

Bekim's relationship with his domineering father is tense and intolerable. Fear and violence are always lurking round the corner "like a beast bound up in a straight jacket" yet even when Bekim rents an apartment of his own he allows a pet boa constrictor to live beneath the sofa, addicted somehow to threat and victimisation.

My Cat Yugoslavia is complex and unnerving. Hats off to David Hackston for his translation, particularly the anthropomorphic aspects, to English from Finnish. This is literary fiction that asks more questions that it answers but what is does achieve is a startling window in to the immigrant experience that is profound and deeply moving.

Themes of isolationism and talking cats sounds Murakami-esque but this is far from homage. For me, Statovci's talking cat is a well crafted means to expose both Bekim's isolation from the society around him and the same society's very darkest response to immigration.

My Cat Yugoslavia is beautifully written, immensely original and a highly commendable piece of literary fiction. I just hope David Hackston can keep translating Statovci's work for the English speaking audience.   

I read this novel at home in snowy Oxfordshire

My Cat Yugoslavia by Patjim Statovci translated by David Hackston published by Pushkin Press, 272 pages.     

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