Friday, 18 April 2014

What I've been reading: The Polish Boxer, MaddAddam, The Sign of the Four

It's been so long since I've read any Literary fiction that I wasn't sure how to respond to The Polish Boxer. What's more, it's one of those books that defies an easy categorisation of form. A collection of short stories that not quite fictional, but are by no means purely autobiographical. Also, this isn't really a short stories collection - it's more a kind-of novel told through a series of interludes.

Except it isn't. The Spanish version of The Polish Boxer might be that, but the English on is distinct, both in content and organisation. It is in fact a short story collection compiled thematically by a handful of translators. Any 'unity' the volume appears to have is an act of editing that questions the very notion of authorship. Also (as I just mentioned), it's translated, which always makes things more interesting, especially if there are a handful of translators at work.

So, what the heck is Eduardo Halfon's The Polish Boxer?

Well, it's certainly worth your time. Ten stories that talk about belonging, prejudice, privilege and difference. They are stories about outsider status, about how dangerous that can be, about the lies we tell ourselves to make it bearable, to construct a narrative we can understand. They are about kinship, they are about, ultimately, the failure to connect.

These are not kind stories. Some of the darkest parts of the 20th, and indeed 21st, centuries are insistent in them  - we are dealing with Jewish and Roma protagonists, after all.

The prose is sparse but elegant, and I assume that's how it goes in the original. I did get annoyed at the narrator's tendency to undermine that elegance, his insistence on 'authenticity' at the expense of poetry, an image being given and then rejected in the following sentence. Once or twice it was effective, but its repetition, twinned with a reluctance to show enthusiasm, imbued the narrative voice with a desperation not be mocked. I found this irritating. It felt almost that the narrator was desperate to be seen, to show us the strings, tell us how the magic trick is done. Nowhere was this more obvious than in 'Distant', nowhere was it more avoided - thematically and stylistically - than 'The Pirouette'. Perhaps this was intentional.

To finish, I have seen a couple of other reviews that claim it's impossible to see the seams in the translation, that, despite having four translators who worked on separate stories, the work has a certain tone that remains equal throughout. I would dispute this. I can feel a different hand at work in different parts of The Polish Boxer. That in itself is not a problem - the problem is that I preferred some of them to others.

Another writer who seems to be intent on showing us the strings is Margaret Atwood in MaddAddam. This makes me very sad. I love Margaret Atwood.

It isn't that MaddAddam is a bad book, per se, it's that it is an unnecessary one. Oryx and Crake is perhaps the most terrifying dystopia I've ever encountered. It's sheer bleakness recommends it, especially as Jimmy reflects on how long it would take society, any kind of society, to rebuild itself given mankind's comprehensive destruction of the world's natural resources. The Year of the Flood, as sequels go, was not needed. Still, it gave further insight into a well constructed near-future, and it told of two women's journeys in faith and in love in moving, intelligent terms.  

MaddAddam? I don't know what function this book serves. Sure, it's more hopeful (marginally) and it ties up a lot of loose ends, but the loose ends are what made the first two novels so powerful. By existing, MaddAddam undermines itself.

That said, there are some lovely bits. The reflection on the function of story, the corruption and the coming-of-age of the Crakers is Atwood at her best (this is the middle chunk of the novel) and Toby's attempts to reconcile the faith she reaches at the end of The Year of the Flood with the practicalities of life is very well handled - although somewhat rehashing old ground. I was least convinced by her exploration of the MaddAddam of the title, and less than taken with her characterisation of Adam. So, not a bad book, but something of a disappointment.

Last, but not least, The Sign of the Four! A book that threw me because I got the distinct impression I had read it before now but couldn't remember doing so, or indeed, a damned thing that happened. This doesn't happen to me and it distracted me the whole time I was reading it. On completion, I discovered that, yeah, I've read it before. I must have been very tired, feverish or drunk when I did so, though. Or perhaps it just isn't the best Sherlock story out there.

Still, it has everything you want from Mr Holmes (Deductions! Honour among thieves! Providential conclusions! Cocaine!) and a few things that you sort of expect but don't really want (racism! phrenology! cultural imperialism!) As it is, if you haven't already read it, it's pretty much what you'd expect. Not as good as some of the others, but it has the redeeming feature of the best closing line of anything, ever.


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks, look forward to seeing your thoughts (and any suggestions about what I should read next).