Thursday, 1 November 2012

Vampires, Bunnies, And Some Surprising Behaviours Of Domestic Silverware

I am currently reading three books at once. This is not always a good idea. Plots, ideas, and characters segue from volume to volume like phantasmagorical double agents, creating in their unauthorised juxtaposition alliances ranging from the serendipitous to the absurd, and occasionally unholy.
First up; "The Evolution Of Inanimate Objects", by Harry Karlinsky, from The Friday Project, one of the quirkier, smaller imprints of the HarperCollins behemoth. Harry Karlinsky has a distinguished backlist of non-fiction academic work, and even before we hit Chapter One, it becomes abundantly clear why the publishers have found it necessary to preface the author's name with the disambiguating legend, "A Novel By". The supposed history of the life, work, and eventual mental degeneration and incarceration, of a putative younger son of Charles Darwin, he who both defined and destroyed what we now perceive as the fundamental bases of the Victorian world-picture, knits into a seamless surface, at once reassuringly familiar and distressingly surreal, the known and the unknowable, real and imagined, the rational, and the intensely unreasonable. Having by now somewhat recovered from the unexpectedly profound special effects of Mr Karlinsky's hyper-realistic faction technique, I have begun to develop a few, cautious theories of my own in respect of the novel's several subtexts - of which, more later.
Next comes "Nine Rabbits", by the Bulgarian author Virginia Zaharieva, translated by Angela Rodel and published by the rather delightful Istros Books, a small press devoted to publishing fiction in translation, with a strong focus on South Eastern Europe. In common with the previous work is its epistolary form, tricksy way with perceptions of reality, in the very best post-modern tradition, - and the pervading obsession of the novel's central "voice" with matters of the kitchen and table, as a medium for explaining and demonstrating the workings of their personal cosmology. 
One of the great joys, for me, of reading literature from other countries and cultures than my own, is the sensation of tasting a dish unknown to me, a dish formed by other influences and other histories, only comprehensible to my animal brain in the consumption and digestion thereof. And in this aspect, "Nine Rabbits" is so far showing itself a Michelin five star, luridly synaesthetic all-round box-ticker. Opening it is itself like falling down a rabbit-hole, into a dystopian wonderland of alternately passionate, and disinterested, brutality, told, initially, with the almost magical unconcern of a child's viewpoint, looking back with minimal reinterpretation but a steadily held lens. Stylistically, Zaharieva juxtaposes memoir format, diary, fragments of  epic verse, lists of alternate endings like a "What happened next?" adventure book, and of course the recipes, each recipe marking a significant moment or stage in the narrator's psychological journey. I have tried a few of the recipes along the way, and intend at a future stage to publish the results with a few observations, and other serving suggestions. Arse-End Potatoes and Monastery Soup (complete with incense) have met with approval, both for flavour and title, in my household so far.
Furry creatures of various sorts also crop up in my third read, "The Finno-Ugrian Vampire", this time by a  Hungarian, Noemi Szecsi, published by another relatively new, and definitely enthusiastic, small imprint, Stork Press, in an English translation by Peter Sherwood, who, as will shortly become apparent, must have had his work cut out for him (more power to his ink-besmirched elbow).
The chief bunny in this burrow is Initiative, the hero of the reluctant vampire heroine's proposed series of disturbing and unsuccessful children's books. Initiative is so named in English, rather than the writer's native idiom, in an apparently perverse tribute to the Golden Age of British anthropomorphic kid-lit both obsessively researched, and sneeringly disapproved of, by Szecsi's heroine. Other not-so fluffy cameos are provided by the pets - and sometimes light impromptu snacks - of virgin vamp Jerne's grandmother, the senior - and card-carrying - Finno-Ugrian Vampire, who keeps flocks of plump, sleek rats as a home-decoration accessory, not content with knocking off the plasterwork and carving faux bullet holes into the walls of the otherwise comfortable and desirable bourgeois residences she prefers to inhabit - genuinely dilapidated properties not tending to occur in neighbourhoods with sufficient class for our heroine's wealthy and aristocratic family.
A deceptively straightforward narrative approach conceals a peeling sequence of layers in this very entertaining novel, a relatively brief, but thoroughly packed read. This is something of a palimpsest book, a book about books, about language, words, nationalities, identities and translation itself. And it leaves its own peculiar flavour in the reader's mouth - salt, warm, a little metallic... I should have finished it by tomorrow. Full review to follow.

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