The Fiction Faction - Archive - January-June 2006
Elizabeth Baines

January 2006
A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes

Another large meeting to discuss this book of Mark’s choosing. Published in 1929 but set in the late-Victorian period, the novel concerns the ‘adventures’ of a group of children from two colonial families sent to school in England from Jamaica, and captured by pirates en route.
The book was a sensation in its day and is known as the classic which challenged the sentimental Victorian popular image of childhood as innocent, and paved the way for the later Lord of the Flies. However, our group encountered certain problems as to how to read it in the present day and age.

Anne said that she had found the novel unpleasant, but thought that she might have been intended to find it unpleasant, though wasn’t sure of this. Some people, notably Mark, Jenny and new member Hans, found the prose dated and formal for a novel written in the late twenties, although Hans said that he soon adapted and got drawn into the story. Jenny strongly objected to the narrative mode of ‘telling rather than showing,’ and Trevor agreed, saying that he found the author opinionated.
We never really got to grips with this last point in the meeting, but as John said afterwards, the author Richard Hughes, a young man of twenty-six when he wrote the novel in the late twenties, is not the same as the narrator, whom we learn has not visited the island since 1860. The narrator is therefore identified as Victorian, which inevitably informs the voice he/she is given by the author. However, John also said that he nevertheless had a problem with this narrator, who is never further identified and whose attitude to the events of the novel often seems ambivalent. This ambivalence may well be a calculated stratagem, an antidote to Victorian certainties about the nature of children, but it did lead at times to our difficulties in interpreting the author’s own attitude.

Several people noted the parallels between this story and Peter Pan, and we felt that this book was a deliberate pastiche and critique of that tale in which childhood is an idyllic state out of which it would be better not to grow, and in which, although the children adventure away from their parents, they are ultimately cocooned in a sentimental mother-love. Here, on the contrary, the children are said to love their cat more than their mother, suffer little on separation from their parents, and, once let loose on board ship, exhibit a complex and animal amorality which involves a certain amount of matter-of-fact cruelty. In addition, the main protagonist, eleven-year-old Emily, experiences a certain existential awareness which implies a Freudian concept of the complexity of childhood psychology. These moments in Emily’s psychology are presented as moments of change and there is explicit reference to the stages through which children pass as they grow into adulthood, countering the simplistic Victorian child/adult dichotomy. The pirates themselves are indeed at moments presented as childlike, and, in what seems an important and symbolic statement on the part of the author, are unarmed. On many occasions the children and pirates seem deliberately aligned in their amoral and child-adult complexity.

However, from our present-day vantage point we found the novel unsatisfying and the psychology of the children still too simplistic. While I could appreciate the depiction of the children as a refutation of Victorian concepts, I found their lack of trauma on being separated from their parents unrealistic in the light of our subsequent ideas of nurture and parental deprivation, and the novel on this level collusive with Victorian/Edwardian children’s stories of untroubled adventure. There was some discussion about this. Some people pointed out that the children already led somewhat ‘hippyish’ lives independent of their parents in Jamaica, and Trevor said that they were thus absorbed in themselves and took their parents for granted. Mark thought that it could be explained by Richard Hughes’s own Edwardian-style childhood in which middle-class boys were routinely separated from their parents by being sent to boarding school. I said that none of these things could explain the children’s lack of a sense of loss: anyone who is taken for granted is by definition depended upon, and just because separation was the middle-class Edwardian norm did not mean that there was not a sense of loss, inevitably repressed, and that what this book seems to lack from our vantage point, in spite of its Freudian concept of child complexity, is the Freudian idea of emotional repression.
John had wondered to me beforehand if perhaps the fact that none of the children ever comments on the sudden unexpected disappearance of the elder child John (who happens to die on a visit on shore), is perhaps meant by Hughes to be an instance of repression – the narrator does indeed make the point that none of them mentions it. If this is the case, however, the issue of repression doesn’t seem properly addressed, and Jenny in particular found repugnant the way John’s death was skipped over. It is true that one might read the ending, in which Emily condemns the pirates to death for a crime she herself committed but then blanks off and puts it all behind her, as a deliberate portrayal of repression, but once again it is impossible to draw definite conclusions. The narrator declines even to speculate: What was in her mind now? I can no longer read Emily’s deeper thoughts, or handle their cords. While this allows Emily the independence and complexity which Victorian images of childhood would have denied her, it leaves us in the dark as to how conscious she is of the consequences of her actions – and left our group largely unsatisfied.

Neither could we work out the author’s precise stance on the sexual abuse by the pirate cook of the eldest child, Creole Margaret. There was disagreement among us about how likely it is in reality that all of the other children would be as innocent of what is happening to her as they seem to be in the book. Would they really have been so innocent, as indeed Victorian sentimentality would have held? Or is this another instance of repression, and if so is it that of the children or the author: is the author slyly assuming that the children are repressing their own awareness, or is he, in view of the moral climate in which he was writing, simply unable to deal with the issue? In any case, in our present paedophilia-conscious era, the way it was glossed over – and spliced with portrayals of the pirates as humanely quaint – made for us a less than comfortable read. Anne pointed out too that making the abused child Creole made the abuse ‘safe’ in a somewhat racist way.
We felt it was also unclear
how aware Emily is of the sexual nature of the captain’s approach towards herself, when she repels him by so symbolically biting his finger, or how sexual the author intends to imply her own behaviour is when she subsequently woos him back to be her friend. Ultimately we felt it was another instance of authorial ambivalence, that Hughes himself had been unable to address this issue. Someone suggested that indeed the character John had been dispensed with by the author precisely, however subconsciously, in order not to have to deal with the abuse of boys, of which as an ex-boarding-school boy he would have been all too aware.

Classic as it is, we found copies of this book hard to obtain. Sarah hadn’t succeeded in getting one, so hadn’t read it, and said that she didn’t think she would now: we hadn’t exactly sold it to her. Doug, however, was one person in the group who had entered entirely into the spirit of the book and had enjoyed it unreservedly.

February 2006
Kiss of the Spiderwoman by Manuel Puig

Three new members and a very lively, noisy meeting with lots to distract us: some very tasty titbits provided by Jenny, an unusually large amount of wine and, since two of our new members had just moved into the area, the subject of house removal - all a far cry from the grim Argentine prison-cell setting of this novel of Trevor’s choosing. Nevertheless, in spite of the distractions, we managed to conduct a disciplined discussion.

In this novel, in the night-time darkness of the cell, Molina, imprisoned for a homosexual offence against a minor, relates to his political-dissident cellmate Valentin the spell-binding stories of lush and supernatural films in all of which, someone pointed out, people and things are often not quite what they seem. As the stories unravel, Valentin too becomes bewitched by them and his rational cynical guard comes down, and the two men begin to affect each other profoundly, drawing each other like ‘spiderwomen’ into their worlds.

Trevor said that when he read the book years ago he thought it was brilliant, but this time, reading it in a rush while suffering from flu, he had found it somewhat hard going, and wasn’t now at all sure that it was any good after all.
A main sticking point, he said, was the footnotes which interrupt the story at seemingly random points and provide a lengthy and dry account of the history of theories of homosexuality. Everyone agreed, and no one felt sure of their function or usefulness. New member Clare who is a counsellor and psychotherapist was particularly irritated by the material as over-familiar, although Anne suggested that maybe it was there to educate a homophobic 1970s Argentine audience. Even so, we were still puzzled about the way the footnotes appear, splicing up the story as they do – most often mid-dialogue – and seeming to run counter to it in mode. We all however agreed that there is a strong air of authority about the writing of this novel, and felt that nothing in it is done without calculated intention.

We turned our attention to the mode of the story itself. Much of it is played out through dialogue alone. We all agreed that this is brilliantly done, that although there is thus never any narrative intervention or description we gained a vivid picture of the cell and sense of the two characters. Clare presumed that Puig’s use of this mode must simply be due to his training as a filmmaker, but Trevor had a different theory:
As the novel progresses, it becomes clear that the prison authorities are spying on Valentin, and later we are treated to transcripts of surveillance reports. Trevor wondered if in fact the dialogue we read is a transcript of a surveillance tape, and we all entertained this idea until I pointed out that the dialogue sometimes bleeds into first Molina’s and later Valentin’s inner thoughts in a way which suggests otherwise. Alternatively, and more simply although politically, it is a way of promoting the novel’s theme of the power of fantasy in the face of oppression and political over-rationality, allowing the characters and their impulses and the dream-like recounted film fantasies to float free of narrative restrictions or contingency. Clare then suggested that the footnotes are above all a formal narrative device illustrating the uselessness of theory in the face of the human need for sensual fantasy and the comfort of relationships – for it is indeed very hard to attend to them while one is involved in the story of the novel.

All in all, we were very impressed by this book and its devastating end, and new member Fran said she was very glad of the chance to read it, which otherwise she wouldn’t have done. At which point, the meeting disintegrated into separate and noisy discussions on other topics, and we fell on the food, and to our shame all of the wine got drunk.

March 2006
Snow by Orhan Pamuk

Anne chose this book in which an exiled and creatively blocked poet, Ka - whose name in fact means Snow - returns to Turkey for the death of his mother and then travels in a snowstorm to the depressed Anatolian town of Kars, ostensibly to report on local elections and a rash of suicides amongst Muslim girls forbidden by the secular state to wear headscarves, but also in subconscious and amorous pursuit of his old university friend, the divorced and beautiful Ipek. As Ka reaches Kars, the snow cuts the town off from the rest of the world, and in this snowbound dreamscape Ka begins to write poetry again and is drawn against his will into a military coup in which secularists and Islamists are ostensibly pitted against each other, but in which, as always, no one’s colours are ever clear. The story is narrated years later after Ka’s assassination by his friend, a narrator with the same name as the author, Orhan.

Essential reading for our times is the quote from Margaret Atwood on the cover of our edition, and in the same review she praises Pamuk for his considerable more long-term achievement of ‘writing his country into being’ for Westerners. I’m afraid that on the evidence of this book few in our group could feel so positive, in spite of our appreciation that simply writing this book was an act of bravery, with its critical look at every position, both secular and Islamist - a point carried by Ka's assassination backshadowing the story.

Since Anne spent her own childhood in Turkey, it was the setting and subject matter which had inevitably drawn her to the book, and she said that in the event that was all she could read the book for, since as a novel she found it somewhat deadly, not so much a novel as events arranged for the author to attack and sometimes satirise his many targets, and the characters mere ciphers in this purpose. Worst of all, she found the translation very bad, and this made her quite angry - one obvious mistake being the constant reference to the trees in the town as oleanders, when oleanders could never grow in the chill climate of Anatolia.

Others of us had guessed that the translation was less than perfect, since there were odd careless repetitions within sentences. I said that the trouble is, if the translation is lacking you can’t really judge the book. While mystery and the muddiness of people’s motivations is clearly a preoccupation of the book, there were often moments when even the narrator's stance towards the characters and situations seemed contradictory and puzzling, and in a way which gave me the sense that it was unintentional. However, it was impossible to tell if this was a function of the translation or of the novel itself or my own lack of cultural understanding (though I would expect a novel to remedy this last). I said that I was immensely interested in the subject matter of this book – the clash between Westernisation and Islamism – (and we all agreed with Margaret Atwood’s implication that it was the pressing subject of our time), but because I could not get to grips with the psychology of the characters this book did not illuminate the subject for me, or indeed move me anything like as much as a short news film from Iraq which I had seen on TV that evening. A main point of the novel is that the motivations and psychology of the suicide girls remain a mystery to everyone including the Islamists to whom suicide is a sin, but there seemed other, less intentional psychological mysteries: for instance, everyone in our group found Ka’s attitude to Ipek unconvincing and hard to fathom.

One problem may have been the matter of our attention. We were never drawn in to the book and had to work to apply ourselves to it, and most of us found we could read it only in short bouts. We all got pretty sick of the descriptions of the snow, and most people found impenetrable and affected Ka’s theory of poetry (he envisages his poems as existing on the two axes of a magnified snowflake, representing logic and imagination). Clare, indeed, failed to finish the book, as did Doug who left it on a plane and then could not dredge up the interest to get another copy.

However, in spite of all this, the book has left me with a lasting sense of the desolate, aching spirit of a place once at the heart of empire but now abandoned, and of the hope and despair of its alienated protagonist Ka and the bitter-sweet euphoria of his creativity. Thus for me Pamuk has indeed conjured into being what Atwood calls the divided, hopeful, desolate, mystifying Turkish soul.


April 2006
The Human Stain by Philip Roth

One thing you can say about the members of our group: they’re not swayed by received opinion. I met Madeleine for lunch and, since she had missed the last few meetings, told her about the meeting fixed to discuss this book, and she replied sardonically: ‘Well, I’m not exactly keen on Philip Roth!’ It was no surprise, therefore, that she failed to turn up once again.

Doug, who chose this book, thinks that Roth is often as brilliant as the critics say, but that often too there is simultaneously something annoying or unsatisfying about his books. This was precisely how most of the group felt about this particular novel.

In The Human Stain Coleman Silk is a seventy-one-year-old Jewish Classics professor who, as the novel opens, has resigned in anger two years before, after having been accused of making a racist comment about a black student, a crisis which he believes killed his wife. Now, against the background of the impeachment of an American president brought down by his own all-too-human 'stain', Silk has begun a ‘secret’ affair with Faunia Farley, an emotionally damaged and apparently illiterate thirty-four-year-old cleaner at the university, and a new crisis sparks when an anonymous letter arrives telling him that ‘Everyone Knows’ and accusing him of using and abusing her. The writer Nathan Zuckerman, a familiar figure in Roth novels, briefly befriends Silk at the start of these events, and it is he who narrates the whole story after (we soon realise) the death of Coleman and Faunia, so that the events become foreshadowed with doom. Slowly, as Zuckerman presents the story which he has pieced together in retrospect, we come to realise the true irony behind Silk’s earlier disgrace: he was a pale-skinned black passing as Jewish, a secret he never even told his Jewish wife, and of which his children, including his Orthodox-Jewish son Mark, are entirely unaware. This is Silk’s tragic flaw (his human stain) and what makes him a tragic hero in the mode of the Classics plays he has taught.

The narrative manipulation of these events, the withholding of information until the moment when it can truly detonate, the foreshadowing to create an ironic ache of tragedy, the poignant sense of mystique created by the use of the unknowing and wondering narrator (Nobody knows, he rails at the writer of the anonymous note, the young professor Delphine Roux) - all these are indeed brilliantly done, and as ever Roth’s prose sweeps one away with its thundering angry rhythms and rhetorical and intellectual authority.

‘Political correctness’ is the cause of Silk’s downfall, and the narrative indictment of this mode of thinking is breathtakingly suasive:
The tyranny of propriety … the bridle it still is on public rhetoric, the inspiration it provides for personal posturing, the persistence just about everywhere of this de-virilizing pulpit virtue-mongering (note those plosive alliterative ps) … that the likes of a Ronald Reagan call America’s core values, and that maintains widespread jurisdiction by masquerading itself as something else – as everything else.
This tirade is in fact Coleman Silk’s, filtered by Zuckerman, the narrator who so resembles Philip Roth himself and is indeed writing a novel about Silk called The Human Stain. This slippage between character, narrator and author (between what Delphine Roux, first interviewed for her post by Silk, refers to in post-structuralist terms as mimesis and diegesis) is what is so clever and unsettling about the book. In this particular book it serves beautifully Roth’s intention of exposing the con of ‘authority’ (‘Everyone knows’ is the invocation of the cliché and the beginning of the banalization of experience … all that we don’t know is astonishing … even more astonishing is what passes for knowing. And earlier: Simply to make the accusation is to prove it. To hear the allegation is to believe it.

Unfortunately however we could not help but find the portrayal of the women in this novel somewhat suspect in the very ways of which Silk is accused. We squirmed at the name of Faunia, and the patronisation of its connotations: a shy or lustful animal of the woods, a noble savage. And while at one point Roth/Zuckerman provides a wonderfully understanding account of Delphine’s battle against the patronisation of men, we could not at all believe her behaviour, which seemed indeed a negative and stereotyped male fantasy of a feminist.

The trouble was, because Roth has at times provided such understanding and such an acute and damning analysis of political correctness we felt that he had forestalled us from making such a complaint. Either that, or he was deliberately playing with us in this way - as John said, Roth is nothing if not a writer in conscious control of his material; he felt that unlike Updike he was perfectly aware of when he was being sexist. Either way, as readers we felt manipulated in a way which did not feel comfortable or satisfying.

I said that while the prose was powerful, I had in fact noticed an inconsistency on the first page which right from the start alerted me to a certain authorial arrogance (unless I was missing something): ...whatever miseries she endured she kept concealed behind one of those inexpressive bone faces that hide nothing (!). Trevor said, God, you can’t judge a book on one mistake, but John and I said, If you can’t trust the language of a book, what can you trust? As usual I would have liked us to look more closely at the prose and how it operated than we did, but it was too dark in my corner of the room to see the text so this time I didn’t even try to force the point.

Finally Hans asked if we liked Coleman Silk, and people seemed somewhat dumbfounded by the question, which is perhaps Roth’s great achievement: to make the question beside the point for the reader, and to remove Silk from the realm of black-and-white judgement which in the novel so traduces him.

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May 2006
The Accidental by Ali Smith

As some of us had read Ali Smith’s first full-length fiction, Hotel World, and had found it quite brilliant, I suggested this, the author’s Booker-short-listed and currently Orange-nominated second novel.

To begin with, I was somewhat disappointed, as were most of the others present. Like Hotel World, The Accidental revolves through separate viewpoints, this time those of the four members of a family who are spending the summer in a rented house in Norfolk when a mysterious and hippyish female stranger enters and transforms their lives. Smith is rightly renowned as a word wizard and a writer of dream-like yet gritty prose, and the language of the first section, the stream-of-consciousness perspective of twelve-year-old Astrid, has been singled out for particular praise. However, I and most others found this initial section quite difficult to engage with and a barrier to getting engrossed in the novel. Astrid’s thoughts are here couched in the defensive and judgemental jargon of troubled early-teenagehood – everything is ‘substandard’ and ‘typical and ironic’ – and while the prose brilliantly replicates the tropes of contemporary teen-speak, I didn’t think it a completely realistic representation of a teenager’s inner thoughts, which it seems to me would be less self-consciously guarded linguistically. Where this section of the narrative does dovetail with my idea of a teenager’s ponderings – long meditations on reality and language involving experimental word-play – I found it somewhat self-indulgent, however linguistically inventive, and the ‘teenaged’ sentence structures – short sentences with falling rhythms: She is on holiday on Norfolk. The substandard radio says 10.27 a.m. – felt clogged and didn’t propel me onwards.

Clare in particular said she had precisely the same experience, but also found, as I did, that as the novel moved on between the perspectives of the different characters, she became drawn in and indeed eventually found it a compulsive read. In fact, in clearly conscious authorial strategy, in later sections Astrid becomes progressively released from her clogged prose, as indeed all four of the family are released from their blocked and isolated psychological states by the almost magical and seductive yet subtly violent and ultimately accidental advent of Amber. Entitled Beginning, Middle and End, the three major sections of the book paradoxically take the characters from a point where they are blocked, unable to go forward, ended, to a new point where they can begin again.

We discussed what and who Amber is, and on what level we were meant to take her. Was she real, i.e. were we possibly meant to take her as figment of the other characters’ collective imagination? After all, she is surrounded in doubt: she appears to Astrid (and initially to us in the Norfolk household) like an apparition or a trick of the light:
There is the shape of someone on the sofa by the window. Because of the light from the window behind the person, and because of the flash of light still filling her own eye with reds and blacks, the face is a blur of light and dark.
There is confusion as to why she is there: each of the two adults, Eve and Michael, assumes her to be connected with the other (and they are so isolated from each other psychologically that they never question this), and the children, equally isolated within themselves and their own problems, never question anyone on her presence. Thus she is able her to infiltrate their household like a ghost, a resident spirit. If this is the case, though, Jenny said, (ie that they’ve imagined her), she can hardly be said to have transformed their lives, they must ultimately have transformed themselves.

Sarah said no, she was definitely real, remember she is seen by other members of the community, one of whom asks about her once she has finally gone. But, John said, were we meant to read the novel on an allegorical rather than a realist level? Is she meant as a kind of angel, as she appears to be to seventeen-year-old Magnus when he first encounters her, or even some kind of devil - though in fact, as Clare pointed out, rather than good or bad, she’s spectacularly amoral, just the ‘accident’ that happens to the family?

There is also confusion about her name. In a subtle moment, more or less missed by the family, the cleaner seems to correct them when they call her Amber, and it seems that they have misheard her real name. There is a framing narrative which we assume to be Amber’s in which she tells us that she was conceived in a cinema café while the film Poor Cow was running, finally telling us that she was named after that cinema, The Alhambra. This is a novel turning on concepts of light and film and illusion. Astrid has a movie camera with which, as the novel opens, she is filming the dawn of each day; everywhere that she and Amber walk together in the village surveillance cameras record them. Amber scoffs at all this, makes Astrid challenge the surveillance cameras and then drops Astrid’s camera off the motorway bridge and tells her to look at the world with her own eyes instead. Film is useless illusion, she seems to be saying, and sure enough when Amber later views her own films they lack the colour and atmosphere she remembers.

Yet Amber herself is part of that illusion. Astrid suddenly remembers how she really first saw her: waiting on the road by her car in one of the dawns she filmed. And long after, when Eve looks at the family snaps of that Norfolk time, Amber turns out, contrary to Eve's memory, not to be in a single one. And this is how Amber/Alhambra presents her identity to us, as a compilation of film moments and personalities which have entered the collective consciousness:
…anything was possible. We had a flying floating car. We stopped the rail disaster by waving our petticoats at the train … I sold flowers in Covent Garden. Yet in an elegiac final section she describes how the cinemas which once projected them have all crumbled like dreams and gone.

I wanted to know what all this meant. Did it mean that inevitably now we live by illusion but we need to be aware of that and of the dangers? We never really answered this question, though, and perhaps for this reason, the feeling of things unresolved, most people felt ambivalent about the book, though everyone agreed that it had made for a really good discussion, one of our longest yet. Trevor and Sarah however thought the book great, though even Trevor felt as most of us did that the orderly presentation of the different narrative voices was over-schematic and frustratingly predictable. Sarah had just one tiny quibble: she found affected the way each section began in the middle of a sentence, and felt the author had only done it because she could, rather than for any really convincing artistic reason.

Finally Sarah pointed out that actually the book is quite funny, which somehow we had failed even to mention.

It was quite late by the time we finished the discussion, which meant that it was even later by the time everyone finally went, not a single crisp or a single drop of wine remaining.

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June 2006
The Reader by Bernhard Schlink

It was Midsummer’s Day but it was blowing a gale and freezing cold, and we turned up in coats at Clare’s to discuss this German novel.

The book consists of the meditations of the narrator as he remembers how, as a fifteen-year-old in post-war Germany he was once seduced by and fell in love with Hanna, an older woman, only to discover later, when they had long lost touch and he was a law student attending a war crimes trial, that she was the chief defendant, a past concentration camp commandant.

Hans, who had chosen the book, was unable to be there, so no one introduced it, but we all immediately stated that we had really liked the book, many of us finding it a compulsive read - indeed almost too compulsive, so that we had read it too quickly and felt that we hadn’t absorbed it properly.

I said that I had found it utterly moving, and had been frequently in tears as I read. I had been stunned by the first chapter, in which the narrator recalls his first meeting with Hanna. We readers at this point know nothing of what will ensue, and all that happens is that, sickening with hepatitis, he throws up in her yard and she, an unknown and unremarkable woman, swills him down and comforts him and takes him in hand. Yet this passage, plainly and simply related, is somehow drenched in a sweet, ineffable sadness which reduced me to tears. I said that I had not been able to tell – at the compulsive speed with which the novel immediately made me read – precisely how this effect had been achieved, I only knew that it had a feeling of intense distillation.

The narrator makes clear that this is a memory he has mulled over all his life, and indeed it so strongly feels like it that people in the group wondered if the book were autobiographical and suspected that, at least in this early section, it was.

Almost as moving, I found, was the second chapter in which the narrator describes his life-long recurring dream: of the house in this first chapter, Hanna’s house, transposed into different geographies and settings, but always recurring.

Sarah said that she had liked the early part of the book, the part which deals with the affair between Hanna and the narrator, better than the second half of the book dealing with the war trial, and felt that the second had been somewhat tacked on. As a consequence, she felt that it wasn’t really even a Holocaust novel as claimed by critics and certainly not the most important Holocaust novel as many have implied.

Not everyone agreed with her. We felt that the disjunction between the two halves of the novel is more complex and meaningful than she had implied, formally replicating the amnesia of the post-war years and the dissociation necessary for those, like Hanna, involved in Nazi activities, as well as the gulf in the narrator’s understanding once he uncovers the truth about her. He asks outright: what does he do with his obsessive feelings for Hanna now that he knows? He can’t simply erase them, or his tender memories, which (as exemplified in the power of that first chapter) now make up his consciousness and being? How does he view her once he knows: through his memories, through the accusations of the prosecution, or through his sudden realisation, half-way through the trial, that she was illiterate, and that this explained all her past actions including both the fact that she had made him read to her and the fact that she had spent her life sidestepping situations in order to avoid exposing this shortcoming, sidestepping one time into the camps?

This is what the novel is about, someone said: the fact that people ended up as Nazis for very ordinary, everyday reasons, and Sarah reiterated her oft-stated opinion that we all say now that we wouldn’t have colluded with the Nazi regime, but that faced with the same situation we might find it very hard not to.

And how does the narrator view Hanna now, all these years later, when the images of the Holocaust have crystallised (into what: the whole truth, or a partial cliché?) and when Hanna has spent her years in prison trying to atone?

Trevor said that what was brilliant about this book was the fact that it could deal with such huge and complex issues in so few pages and in such simple, spare language. (We presumed it was a brilliant translation and were sorry that we were unable to quiz Hans, who had read it in the German, on the comparison.)

What is great about this novel, we finally decided, was that it asks the questions which can’t easily be answered: What is love? How can we judge the nature of evil? How can we forgive and how atone? How can we deal with our emotional implication in the past?

In short, it confronts us with the uncertainty which ideological regimes would deny.


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