Thursday, September 23, 2021

rhino what you mean

A couple of further notes following the last three book posts: firstly while I'd had The Pope's Rhinoceros knocking around on my shelves for a decade or so (I don't specifically remember where I got hold of it but it may well have been on one of my strictly rationed trips to Hay-on-Wye), I first became aware of its existence some years earlier, during my participation in a truck safari in southern Africa in early 2000, something I see I mentioned towards the end of this 2008 post and even made reference to my travelling companions' selected reading matter. Well, while I'm pretty sure I recall working through several, the only book I specifically remember reading during the trip was John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy Of Dunces, something that earned me some hipster points with the two young American guys who were also on the truck.

There was also a compartment on the truck containing quite a few other paperback books, presumably partly populated by discarded offerings from previous travellers and offered up for the entertainment of current ones, on the understanding that you'd put your chosen book back when you'd finished with it. One of the books in here was an imposing tome called The Pope's Rhinoceros (the same paperback edition that I have) and I recall a conversation ensued about whether anyone had read it and whether someone might have a crack at it during the trip. Since it is literally impossible that I would embark on a trip such as this and fail to bring enough books, I passed at the time.

Back to the two young American guys, who were called Mike and Andy (no surnames for reasons which will become apparent in a minute) - during the last phase of our three-week trip which comprised a few nights in Victoria Falls they decided to cap the trip off by purchasing a load of assorted drugs. They'd managed to get hold of some LSD, and deeming just dropping it in the truck or while gazing on the thunderous watery magnificence of Victoria Falls from the usual viewing platforms to be a bit tame, decided to drop it so that it kicked in just as they were doing a bungee jump off the Victoria Falls Bridge which connects Zimbabwe and Zambia. I recall being in a local restaurant for a communal meal that evening and Andy, still evidently experiencing some after-effects, spending most of the meal under the table having a whispered conversation with a small carved wooden hippopotamus. 

They also managed to get hold of some weed, and since they had a plane to catch a day before ours, and since we'd partaken of some the night before, the stash ended up in the side pocket of my day-pack in order for us to make use of it round the campfire the following night. It was only on arrival at Victoria Falls airport to catch a plane to Harare that I remembered I still had the remains in my rucksack, whereupon I did a frantic dash for a secluded dustbin to empty it out and blow into the pocket to try and clear any last few telltale seeds and leaf fragments. There is of course a Sliding Doors-style alternate version of my subsequent life where I forgot to do this, got nabbed by the sniffer dogs once we encountered the less lax security regime at Harare airport, and was either summarily shot or spent the next 21 years in a Zimbabwean prison.

Secondly. an odd occurrence relating to the next book on the list, No Great Mischief. In a seemingly unrelated sequence of events, I first became aware of the existence of Canadian comic Norm MacDonald only about six months ago after following some random series of YouTube links. He was one of those guys who was extremely well-regarded by his peers, the sort of guy who'd be described as "the comedian's comedian" or something like that, which basically translates as: not as rich and famous as many of his contemporaries. Many of the YouTube clips (and there are a lot) feature him either being comically disruptive or spinning lengthy shaggy-dog stories on various late-night US talk shows, this being a loosely-structured format that seemed to suit him pretty well, a bit like his UK contemporary Sean Lock. Another thing MacDonald and Lock have in common is that they died this year, both relatively young (Lock was 58, MacDonald 61).

Needless to say after his five minutes of fond remembrance Norm MacDonald has subsequently been Milkshake Duck-ed. I'm certainly not dismissing the allegations, but I guess (just as with To Have And Have Not) you have to find a way of acknowledging that stuff without tipping someone's entire oeuvre down the memory hole. You would certainly have to say, for instance, that he seems to have taken a consistently dim view of female comedians and comedy writers. But, and I don't want to lay a heavy CANCEL CULTURE trip on you here, people contain multitudes, and it would be a shame to only admit to the public sphere those who have never expressed a single thought that deviated from current acceptable cultural norms (pun sort of intended). 

Anyway, back to the book link: in the course of the Jacques de Gautier/Jacques de Gatineau/baby dolphin story MacDonald mentioned his fluidly-named protagonist being from "Timiskaming, Quebec". His rambling, off-the-cuff style of delivery makes it sound as if that was a name he'd just made up on the spot, but not only is it a real place, it coincidentally features in a passage towards the end of No Great Mischief that I read no more than a day or two after first seeing the clip. 


Wednesday, September 22, 2021

the last book I read

To Have And Have Not by Ernest Hemingway.

Harry Morgan is a man. A man with a boat. A boat with many uses. The use that Harry wants to put it to is taking rich paying customers out on fishing trips between Havana and Key West. The use that quite a few people would like him to put it to is running various forms of contraband between those two locations: rum, guns, people, you name it.

Harry mostly resists the shady stuff, and wisely so as right at the start of the book we encounter him turning down a lucrative offer to transport some men to Florida and the men in question are promptly mown down by gunfire on leaving the bar. So it's dangerous work and best steered clear of. The trouble is, Harry's latest fishing customer, having been granted some fairly generous credit terms by Harry, chooses this moment to jump on the next plane out of Havana without paying, leaving Harry several hundred dollars out of pocket.

Harry has a wife and kids to feed, and times are hard generally as we're in the middle of the Great Depression, so what does he do? It seems he has little choice but to dip a toe into the murky waters of criminal activity. Despite his initial reluctance Harry seems like a natural for this kind of stuff, agreeing to transport some Chinese men from Cuba to Florida but then killing the money man (after the money has been handed over, of course) and putting the men ashore back in Cuba. Some further transporting of various illicit cargo enables Harry to keep his head above water, so to speak, but it's dangerous work and there's always the chance of a mission going tits up and ending in a hail of bullets. Sure enough on a booze-running trip Harry catches a bullet in the arm, makes it back to Key West (after dumping the booze overboard) but has his boat impounded by the US customs and ends up having his arm amputated above the elbow.

Life is tough for Harry, and it's not getting any easier. There are those who are living the high life in the bars of Havana and the marinas of Key West, though, hanging out on their luxury yachts swilling champagne. These people have worries of their own, of course: the progress of their latest love affair, fretting about the possibility of the wife having her own love affair(s), drinking too much, unwelcome scrutiny by the taxman, that sort of thing. Not quite as fundamental to actual day-to-day existence as Harry's, but it keeps them busy nevertheless. 

Harry, meanwhile, is still trying to make a living, a thing made more difficult by not having access to his boat (and by, you know, only having one arm). He borrows a boat from Havana bar-owner Freddy, and agrees to take some Cubans to Key West. It turns out the Cubans are intending to use the boat as a getaway vehicle after robbing a local bank, and they arrive on the boat toting some large guns and in a bit of a hurry, something they emphasise to Harry by shooting his crewman Albert dead. 

As they speed off across the Caribbean, Harry realises that they probably aren't going to pay him for the trip out of their profits from the bank job, and that it's far more likely that on successfully delivering them to their destination he will be the recipient of a hot lead sandwich. Fortunately Harry is a forward-thinking kind of guy and has stashed a Tommy gun in the boat's cabin. Once the boat is ot of sight and earshot of the shore and the Cubans have started to relax and knock back the rum, Harry whips out the Tommy gun and starts blazing away. Unfortunately it's a bit dark and while he successfully ventilates most of the Cubans he only wings the last one, enabling him to shoot Harry in the belly. Having properly dispatched the last Cuban, Harry hauls himself into a chair, points the boat back towards shore and prepares for either a long slow drift back to shore (the gun battle having ruptured the fuel tank) or a long slow bleed to death. 

One of the obvious things to say about To Have And Have Not is what an oddly-structured book it is. Harry's last acts as described above provide a good example: the climactic gun battle with the Cubans is done and dusted by page 130 (of 191); the remainder of the book is principally devoted to the Gordons and the Bradleys and their various inter-marital entanglements, which only intersect with the main narrative (i.e. Harry's story) right at the end, as the coastguard brings the bullet-riddled boat back into harbour (PLOT SPOILER: Harry is just about still alive, but dies). There is an odd disparity of tone between the exciting, desperate life-and-death stuff going on on Harry's boat and the relatively inconsequential rich-people-being-drunken-shits stuff going on elsewhere. No doubt part of that is deliberate (the Gordons et al are the "haves" to Harry's "have not") but the stories don't mesh together in quite the way it seems like they ought to. This makes a bit more sense when you find out it was created by combining a couple of originally separate short stories. One of the reasons that Howard Hawks wanted to change the plot quite a bit when he filmed it in 1944 (see below) was apparently that he thought it was Hemingway's worst novel. I haven't read enough of them to have an opinion, but it's certainly not in the same league as For Whom The Bell Tolls (the only other one I've read is The Old Man And The Sea, which is really an extended short story at best).

I saw the Bogart/Bacall film a long time ago and I can confirm that it bears very little resemblance to the book beyond featuring a guy called Harry (though he spends a lot of the film being called Steve) who has a boat. There were a couple of further film adaptations in the 1950s: The Breaking Point and The Gun Runners, of varying degrees of faithfulness to the book. 

One thing that will certainly have a jarring effect on the 21st-century reader is some of the language used to describe non-white people. A couple of examples below of stuff that would certainly be considered, erm, "problematic" today:



As you can see these sections are in the part of the book that's written in Harry's voice (some sections later are in the third person), so you could say: well, that's just how unreconstructed rufty-tufty 1930s guys would have talked, and you may very well be right. It is hard to see what could be done about it, assuming anyone thought anything should be done. Pulp all remaining copies and never speak of it again? That seems a bit excessive. A trigger warning in the acknowledgements at the front? Eh, maybe. 

Thursday, September 16, 2021

the last book I read

No Great Mischief by Alistair MacLeod.

It's the 1970s (or possibly the early 1980s) and Alexander MacDonald is driving from his home in rural Ontario to Toronto to visit his older brother Calum. His brother Calum, it transpires, is living in some fairly dispiriting circumstances in a tiny apartment and nursing a ferocious alcohol habit. While Alexander makes a trip to the local liquor store to find something to relieve Calum's suffering he reflects on the events of their shared past, events which of course explain (at least partly) how things have ended up the way they have. Yes, that rumbling sound you hear is the approach of the express service from Framing Device Parkway to Flashback Central.

And so we arrive back in a time period that flits around between the 1950s and 1960s. The MacDonald family live in Cape Breton, right at the north-eastern tip of Nova Scotia. As well as Calum (the oldest) there are three other brothers before Alexander and his twin sister. Their parents run and maintain the lighthouse which sits just off the coast, and can be walked out to over the ice at certain times of year. The family (as the name suggests) are of Scottish descent and remain tightly-knit, with all three remaining grandparents also living no more than a stone's throw away and various other relations dotted about the local area, recognisable as part of the wider clan by their distinctive dark eyes and red hair. 

Anyway, as I'm sure I don't need to tell you, it's a hard life tending an intermittently ice-bound lighthouse in the wilds of northern Canada. And sure enough when Alexander is still a wee bairn of no more than three (and Calum is a teenager) both parents and one of their sons, Colin, have a mishap while traversing the ice in the dark, go through it into the icy and fast-moving waters and are never seen again. And so it falls to the grandparents to bring up the kids, which mainly means Alexander and his sister, the older boys soon being independent enough to get their own place, cars, jobs, etc.

At this point there are some further flashbacks, mainly describing the circumstances of the MacDonald family's arrival in Canada in 1779 in the wake of the Highland clearances, and further back to the Jacobite rising and the Battle of Culloden.

Alexander, as befits the youngest sibling with less pressure upon him to immediately go out and be the chief breadwinner, decides he'd like to be a dentist. But, before he can really get to grips with the business of pulling teeth, his family loyalty is tested. The older brothers are all doing lucrative work as miners at a uranium mine in Ontario (presumably meant to be Elliot Lake) and they're a man short; the reason they're a man short is that Alexander's cousin (also called Alexander MacDonald) has been messily killed by a falling mine bucket. So Alexander agrees to do a season or two at the mine drilling uranium instead of teeth.

The shifts at the mine are long and hard and the atmosphere at the mining camp intermittently tense. Another more distant clan member (yes, also Alexander MacDonald) arrives from the USA in an attempt to dodge the draft, and his arrival (and penchant for petty theft) accelerates the simmering tensions between the Scots and the French Canadian crew from neighbouring Quebec. When, during an enforced period of mining inactivity (the main winch is broken) these tensions boil over into a major rumble in the car park and Calum bashes the Quebecois ringleader fatally over the head with a wrench.

And so we see why Calum's present circumstances are as they are: a lengthy spell in prison, and on release finding it difficult to find work: a bit old for the manual work he used to specialise in, not much in the way of skills for anything else, plus that whole convicted murderer thing which is a bit of a turn-off for prospective employers. In the olden days he would have returned to the bosom of his extended family at the old family homestead and found a way of making himself useful, but times have changed and the grandparents are dead and the surviving siblings scattered across the continent doing their own thing.

The novel ends with Alexander returning to Toronto a few months after the original visit to collect Calum, now in a state of declining health, and deliver him to Cape Breton, from where we assume he is not intending to return. It's now winter and we are invited to speculate what form Calum's final acts will take. Will he set off across the ice to the old lighthouse and park himself there facing out to sea? 

This is Alistair MacLeod's only novel of a long and varied writing career (he was much more prolific as a writer of short stories) and adheres very much to the principle of writing about what you know - he was of Scottish heritage and grew up in Cape Breton. While the story being told here is obviously closely tied to Scottish clan loyalty it's also about family in a more general sense and how, while we still have families that we care about, certain things - the close family ties and the associated ties to particular geographical areas, houses being passed down from generation to generation, grandparents, parents and children plus the odd chicken all living under one roof - no longer really exist, at least in the supposedly sophisticated western world, anyway. And while this is liberating for some, it means that people like Calum are cast adrift to fend for themselves when once they might not have been. It's quite possible there's a calculation that could be done, if you only knew what numbers to put in, that would say that overall this is a good thing, but that doesn't help people like Calum much.

It's a fairly quick read and quite a nice bracing contrast to the absurdly baroque excesses of its predecessor, The Pope's Rhinoceros. This book is spare, stark and devoid of frills, but also features characters who are rooted in the real world enough for the reader to care about them. Unlike its predecessor which I'd had on my shelves for at least ten years and some previous books which had been sitting unread for several decades, I acquired this one only a couple of months ago in the little second-hand bookshop attached to the National Trust property at Killerton in Devon. 

No Great Mischief won the International Dublin Literary Award in 2000. Previous winners featured on this blog are Harvest (2015) and Remembering Babylon (1996). The previous novel featured on this blog, The Pope's Rhinoceros, was shortlisted in 1998, as were, in various other years, Paradise, The Corrections, Bel Canto, The Good Doctor, Havoc, In Its Third Year, Slow Man, No Country For Old Men, Winterwood, Home, The Lacuna and Brooklyn.

Tuesday, September 07, 2021

the last book I read

The Pope's Rhinoceros
by Lawrence Norfolk.

It's not easy being Pope. Never mind getting paintings done properly, there is the boredom. I mean, once you've said Mass a couple of times and performed a couple of other incomprehensible rituals in St. Peter's Square you've got the whole rest of the day to fill, and even hearing the petitions of a few malodorous peasants and reading through the gossip section of Heat a few times probably leaves a few dead hours. And you can't goof off on the internet for a bit because it's the early 16th century and it hasn't been invented yet.

So why not come up with some absurd whim for some desperate sycophant to move heaven and earth to try to fulfil? I mean, in the unlikely event that they succeed you'll probably have forgotten all about it, but it provides a bit of amusement. What about one of these new rhinoceroses that we've been hearing about? I mean, nobody really knows what they look like, but they're big and they're exotic and might provide some amusement. 

Let us now head away from Rome to somewhere slightly less hospitable: the island of Usedom, off the northern coast of mainland Europe on what is now the border between Germany and Poland. Two men are engaged in an odd ritual, the larger man repeatedly lowering the smaller man into the sea in a barrel. When - inevitably - it turns out that the makeshift tar-and-leather waterproofing isn't quite as effective as they'd hoped, they are rescued by some members of an odd order of monks who it turns out live in a crumbling monastery on a nearby clifftop, bits of which keep sliding off into the sea. It further turns out that the two men were doing something related to the remains of the lost city of Vineta, which supposedly previously occupied the clifftop now precariously occupied by the monastery and at some point in the past slid beneath the waves. 

But there's no time to dwell on that, as it is decided that the monks must make a pilgrimage to Rome and petition the Pope (this particular one is a lightly fictionalised Leo X) for something or other (presumably a new and better church). That's no mean feat from the shores of the Baltic, and the party (comprising the monks and Salvestro and Bernardo, the Little and Large team) has a series of crazy adventures traversing Europe before they reach Rome.

But there's no time to dwell on that either, as we're in Rome, the greatest city on Earth. You don't just wander up to the Pope and strike up a conversation, though, there is a whole series of preliminary approaches to be made and a lot of waiting around to do for the right moment to present itself. Meanwhile Salvestro and Bernardo, less inclined to silent contemplation and asceticism, need to find some paying work, and as luck would have it a crew is being sought for a sea voyage to Africa to locate a rhinoceros for the Pope, because, you know, apparently he wants one. 

Certain factions in Rome don't really want the mission to succeed, though, which is partly why Salvestro and Bernardo have been chosen, having precisely zero nautical experience. Moreover the ship is barely seaworthy and the captain is a hopeless drunk. But, against all the odds, they arrive in West Africa. A few problems arise, though: firstly there is a rival expedition also out to secure the prize of the rhinoceros (and, more importantly, the gratitude and favour of the Pope), secondly the land is already inhabited by some native tribes that aren't necessarily inclined to be either welcoming or helpful, and thirdly there isn't a convenient queue of rhinoceroses docilely waiting to be herded into the cage that's been prepared. 

Salvestro's expedition is fortunate to have with them a young woman from the area, previously kidnapped and enslaved in Rome, who can at least converse with the natives. And it turns out that there is some sort of quest-within-a-quest that the expedition members who have made it ashore need to do, involving, as all jungle-based quests do, a mysterious and forbidden lost city that they must enter, but which some of them may not leave. 

Even at the end of that they don't just get a handshake and a "right, here's your rhinoceros"; instead they are lashed to a raft and set adrift down a large river (presumably the Niger) towards the sea. At some point subsequent to this they are intercepted by the rival expedition and brought aboard (along with the caged rhinoceros which was also on the raft). Next minute, we're on some Italian shoreline as various bodies and fragments of wreckage wash up, including Salvestro, who is the only survivor.

And so we return to Rome, as the Pope's entourage prepare to deliver a great spectacle, the climax of which will reveal the legendary rhinoceros, which, thanks to Salvestro, has been delivered as promised. I mean, admittedly, it's not as fresh, nor indeed alive, as one might perhaps hope, and its innards have been scooped out and replaced with a couple of hundredweight of surplus bread rolls, but it's definitely there. Following this slightly farcical end to the spectacle Salvestro finds himself sitting next to the Pope at the subsequent feast, and therefore in a position to witness the Pope finally confronting some consequences for his involvement (as plain old Lorenzo de Medici) in the brutal sack of Prato some years earlier.

The first and most obvious thing about The Pope's Rhinoceros is its formidable size: 753 pages, 39 lines per page, general resemblance to a house-brick. And when you finally gird up to launch into reading it, the first chapter starts at the very beginning with a partial geological history of Northern Europe, which is a bit daunting, although it doesn't go on as long as you fear it might. Once Salvestro and Bernardo get involved in the story things pick up quite a bit, and they provide the hook of actual human interest that carries the reader through the great sweep of history that follows, the monks' motivations being a bit difficult to fathom. There is a strong echo of Of Mice And Men's George and Lennie in Salvestro and Bernardo, with some dark allusions to Bernardo doing Bad Things (possibly accidentally, possibly not) to children in the past.
This is another book from my Projects list, where it got filed because of its length and perceived density and demandingness. I've actually done pretty well with knocking off items from this list during lockdown, The Pope's Rhinoceros being the fourth after House Of Leaves, Lanark and Moby-Dick. Like all three of its predecessors it's actually a good deal easier to read than you might imagine; that said it is also absurdly long and features an absurd amount of digression on a wide range of topics which is clearly the result of an absurd and impressive amount of research. Whether all of it is strictly necessary is another matter. And while the story being told here is more easily followed than in the shorter In The Shape Of A Boar (the only other Norfolk I've read, and mentioned briefly in the Lanark review) certain things still aren't very clear even at the end, after 753 pages: what specifically was Salvestro hoping to achieve with the barrel-on-a-rope routine? what exactly happened at Prato, and what was the Pope's role? is little Amalia some sort of avenging angel sent to claim the Pope's mortal soul, or just a slightly odd little girl? 

Usedom, Leo X, the sack of Prato, the legend of Vineta and some of the other historical stuff mentioned in the novel are (or were) real things - slightly more surprisingly the rhinoceros stuff is based on a real story as well, that of a real ship carrying a real rhinoceros (though that one was supposedly from India) which sank off the Italian coast in 1516. This was the rhinoceros that was supposedly the inspiration for Albrecht Dürer's famous (and famously anatomically inaccurate) woodcut

Thursday, September 02, 2021

it's just another mondegreen

Just to continue the theme of misheard or garbled lyrics, I found myself humming a tune to myself in the kitchen the other day which turned out to be a song from Michael Jackson's Bad album, not something normally in my day-to-day listening habits but an album that my younger sister owned and played repeatedly when we were teenagers. The song contains an odd line which I'd always mentally rendered as follows:
You're just another Quatermain
That line in the original song is followed by a trademark "eeh-hee", which in itself illustrates part of the problem; Bad is the album where Jackson's (no, the other one) vocal tics became oddly intrusive and his pronunciation of certain words became, let's say, idiosyncratic and ripe for parody. Shamone, motherfuckers! 

Anyway, my assumption on hearing what I perceived to be the original lyrics was that Jackson was alluding to Allan Quatermain, protagonist of H. Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines, a book which I should point out I have never read but which is embedded in popular culture and has been filmed several times. I have a vague recollection of seeing Richard Chamberlain and Sharon Stone being boiled (not to death, obviously) in a giant cauldron in the 1985 film version, a film clearly designed to hoover up some of the Romancing The Stone and Indiana Jones megabucks, even down to featuring Stone as the sort of annoying shrieking blonde sidekick as Kate Capshaw portrayed in Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom. At least they didn't attempt to replicate Short Round. Anyway, the idea, I assumed, was to allude to the woman Jackson was presumably addressing (though in hindsight it may in reality have been a small boy, or a chimp) as being some sort of gold-digger, that being almost literally what Quatermain was in the book. 

Note also that the protagonist's name is spelt Quatermain rather than (as you might imagine) Quartermain. "Quarter-main" is how everyone pronounces it, though, rather than, say, "kway-ter-main", which would seem a bit ridiculous.

Needless to say the actual lyric is a good deal more mundane, it being just the title of the song, which is called Another Part Of Me. I should add that I haven't literally just worked this out, I took the trouble to check back in the late 1980s. Even when you know this Jackson's rendering of it is pretty extraordinary, though - listen to around 1:01 and 1:48 in the linked clip and you'll hear, at best, "another pwart o' me". Also needless to say is that others have heard different things (and also the same thing, as "Quatermain" does feature here), including "porno queen", "porter man" and "quart of paint".