erasing clouds

Book Reviews

by anna battista

Niall Griffiths, Stump (Jonathan Cape)

Scottish writer Irvine Welsh somehow set a few standards for the contemporary novel: the stories narrated should be about ordinary dispossessed and disenfranchised characters and should be written in an every day language, possibly with an orthography different from the Standard English one, studded with swearwords, dreaded four letter words and the likes. Thing is that he didn't set any standards at all, but publishers all around the world did and started the search for the perfect best selling novel, a story written by a relatively young author in the style and with the same elements that made "Trainspotting" famous. Niall Griffiths was the latest victim of this marketing frenzy that reduced him to nothing more than "the Welsh Irvine Welsh". His first novel, "Grits", was easily compared to "Trainspotting" for its main characters, a group of young people trying to overcome addiction in a small town in Wales, and for its Welsh flavoured language. But it would be unfair to define Griffiths just a mere copy of Irvine Welsh. "Stump", Griffiths' fourth novel after the acclaimed "Grits", "Sheepshagger" and "Kelly + Victor", is the story of a one-armed man from Liverpool who arrives in a Welsh town where he starts a new life, away from addiction and from dangerous friends and lovers. Unfortunately, two men, Darren and Alastair, are on the looking for him: they've come all the way from Liverpool, sent by a boss who wants to take his revenge upon him for an action he hasn't even committed. Griffiths' dialogues between Darren and Alastair are funny and comical, but the author also manages to grace his descriptions of the landscape surrounding his characters with poetical colours and powerful images. The reader will truly manage to smell the sulphurous stink of the steelworks described at a certain point of the book or be disturbed by a description of a one-legged pigeon that conjures up in the main character's mind images of limbless people. "…all the missing limbs of the world stacked up in one sky-high pyramid, the size and volume of a mountain," Griffiths writes, "All the previous owners stumblin around abbreviated, unwhole; Tutsi women in headscarves, no hands; children playing in minefields in Burma, Afghanistan, Cambodia, the Congo, Foday Sankoh's limbless little orphans. These thousands of shortened people, this hobbling horde of amputees, moving around part dead on the planet, legs gone, arms gone, incomplete. This worldwide truncation, this global reduction of the human shape." Rage and revenge evaporate towards the end of the book, giving more space to moments of beautiful prose and sometimes even tenderness. Niall Griffiths' "Stump" will take him further away from any other comparison, that's for sure.

Stephen Jones, Harry and Ida Swop Teeth (Imp Books)

The world has been remixed. America has disappeared under its weight and has been turned into a configuration of mini-states that go under the names of Little France, Little Korea, Little Iraq and so on. Our story takes place in Little America, "home of the displaced", seventeen years after two Siamese twins, Harry and Ida, were born. The twins were joined at the head, but later separated in an operation that left Ida with more brain than Harry. If you think that this story is already crazy enough, well, you still haven't seen what will come after. This, indeed, is only the beginning of Stephen Jones' second novel. Stephen Jones, well known for his hits under the name Babybird, released a while back his first novel, "The Bad Book". Hit, the protagonist of this novel, was a sort of outsider, an eight year old boy who "wasn't quite right" and suddenly sets on a journey of discovery of his father's universe after his mother goes missing. In a way, "Harry and Ida Swop Teeth" is still haunted by a father figure, Brick, hated by both the twins. The plot revolves around Ida who wants to swap her horrible teeth with Harry's perfect ones and her brother who wants to get a little bit more brain from Ida. The twins' plans will be somehow diverted from their original goals and they will meet quite a few freaky characters and live the most crazy and scary adventures. Jones has made up in less than two hundred pages a universe of madness, happiness and sadness. "Harry and Ida Swop Teeth" is a deeply disturbing and intriguing story that will leave you asking for more.

Mikael Niemi, Popular Music (Flamingo)

It happened to some of you as well before growing up and eventually finding the wrong job. You know how these things happen: you're a kid, you're sulking in your room because you feel bored stiff and you don't know how to spend your time. Then you hear it: it comes from another room or from your neighbour's house, flat or car. It's music. Well, it's not only music, it's an incredible song, it mesmerises you, seduces you with its notes, enters your mind, pierces your heart and, once it's finished, makes you proclaim to your family and friends that you'll start a band and become the next big thing. This is what happens in a way to Matti, the protagonist of Mikael Niemi's "Popular Music". Matti is still a kid when he sees the first vinyl, the first record player and the first obsessive fan (his sister), yet, from then on he'll have only one thing on his mind, making music. But things will be really hard for Matti since he lives in a remote village in the northern part of Sweden, Pajala, a place where an activity like having a band can be regarded as "knapsu", that means, not very manly. As time passes and he grows up, Matti will eventually manage to have his own band with best friends Niila, Erkki and Holgeri. In the meantime, he will have to go through traditional birthdays, weddings and funerals (complete with unhappy ghosts), sauna competitions and disgusting summer jobs. Niemi's, who's written collections of poems, plays and books for children, explores in his first novel the universe of a small village and he does it with very poetical words and lots of irony distilled here and there in the various chapters and dialogues. "Popular Music" has already been dubbed as "the northern Swedish answer to Roddy Doyle's The Commitments". Don't miss it.

Dan Rhodes, Timoleon Vieta Come Home (Canongate)

Ex-composer Cockroft doesn't seem to have anything else on his mind now that he's living in an Umbrian villa, apart from taking care of his dog (the latest in a series) Timoleon Vieta, drinking wine and basking in the sun and in the memories of his ex-boyfriends. Once a famous musician cherished in London, Cockroft was later forced to leave England after making racist remarks on TV. Unfortunately for him, Cockroft will soon have a surprise that will shatter the peace and quiet in his Umbrian retreat. A man, claiming to be a Bosnian refugee arrives one night, brandishing Cockroft's card and reminding him that long ago he invited him to Umbria. So Cockroft's new life begins, fantasising about the Bosnian (and eventually getting unexpected blowjobs, the result of a misunderstanding…) and shopping in Tuscany. The real tense moment in the story arrives when the Bosnian asks Cockroft to abandon Timoleon and they travel all the way to Rome to do the bastardly deed. It's here that the real story unfolds when Timoleon tries to go back home from Rome and meets on his way tourists and locals, being renamed Abbondio, Teg, Leonardo Da Vinci, Dusty, Henri or Timbo. Timoleon Vieta Come Home is, like Dan Rhodes's short stories, a page-turner. Sad moments are alternated with cruelly ironical epiphanies that will keep the reader glued to the book. Contrary to those British authors who write tedious books about their new life in Italy (books of which Dan Rhodes seem to be taking the piss at a certain point of the novel…), Dan Rhodes only spent a few days in Italy to get the inspiration for this story and perhaps he captured the spirit of the country better than many of his fellow writers.

Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis (Jonathan Cape)

"In the second millennium B.C., while the Elam nation was developing a civilisation alongside Babylon, Indo-European invaders gave their name to the immense Iranian plateau where they settled. The word 'Iran' was derived from 'Ayryana Vaejo,' which means 'the origins of the Aryans'." Author Marjane Satrapi goes a long way backwards in the Introduction to "Persepolis", her autobiographical graphic novel, to explain the reader where the word "Iran" originated. Divided in short episodes, Satrapi's biography starts in 1980, a year after the Islamic revolution, when she is ten years old and it has become obligatory to wear the veil at school. Little Marjane, who firmly believes she'll be a prophet one day, reads Marx and Descartes and begs her parents to take her with them at marches and demos, soon realises her life is going to take a tragic turn when her beloved uncle is executed and the war with Iraq breaks out. More adventures follow always with Marjane, her family and friends as the main protagonists: from going to school and being suspended with her mates for using toilet paper to decorate the classroom for the anniversary of the revolution to buying Kim Wilde and Camel bootlegs on the black market. "Persepolis" reminds Joe Sacco's "Palestine", Art Spiegelman's "Maus" or Aleksandar Zograf's "Bulletins from Serbia": their books tell tragic and real stories, but the comic book format makes them more accessible to the reader. Currently translated in English, but already out in French and Italian, "Persepolis" is the first part of a compelling story that will soon be completed by other volumes narrating Satrapi's life after being sent from her parents to Austria. Satrapi's "Persepolis" is not only a coming of age biography, it's a story about the devotion of a woman to freedom and peace, to her family and to her martyred nation.

Ali Smith, The Whole Story and Other Stories ( Hamish Hamilton )

"There was a man dwelt by a churchyard. Well, no, okay, it wasn't always a man; in this particular case it was a woman. There was a woman dwelt by a churchyard." Or so the story goes or, in this case, so the story begins. Ali Smith's new anthology of fiction starts with "The Universal Story", what looks like the tale of a man, then becomes the tale of a woman with a second-hand bookshop, then becomes the tale of a fly, then becomes the tale of a man who wanted too many copies of the Great Gatsby and so on, as if the various possible stories were Russian dolls and the reader had to discover them one after the other by turning the pages of the book. Smith, more famous for her recent novel Hotel World, shortlisted for the Orange Prize and the Booker Prize in 2001, is an unconventional storyteller. The Whole Story is her third collection of short stories after Free Love and Other Stories (Virago, 1998) and Other Stories and Other Stories (Granta, 1999) and confirms her as being one of the most original writers around. This collection includes stories for all the seasons, from "May", about a woman who falls in love with a tree, passing through "Paradise", a tale of three sisters living in Loch Ness waiting for September when one of them will go to college, to "Scottish Love Songs" in which two women are constantly followed by a ghost pipe band. Rather than "linear", as reviewers often define Ali Smith's stories, Smith's writing technique poses a constant challenge to the traditional form of novels and novellas. The Whole Story continues this exciting challenge, becoming for the reader an engaging journey through experimentalism.

Issue 14, August 2003

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