by Lesley McDowell
Theresa Munoz

Volume 5 – Issue 3 – Gallimaufry

October 14, 2009 | by Lesley McDowell
Theresa Munoz

Little Hut of Leaping Fishes
Chiew-Siah Tei PICADOR, £7.99 pp320, ISBN 9780330454391

A graduate of Glasgow University’s creative writing programme, Chiew-Siah Tei has emerged with a debut novel that eschews tricksiness for tradition, and the gentleness of her prose may incline some to think she has played it just a little too safe. But this tale of rival half-brothers in late-nineteenth-century Imperial China leaves its comfort zone when it matters. Mingzhi, the elder half-brother, is good and kind and studies hard, hoping to turn his grandfather’s estate away from the poppy-growing it has begun; Mingyuan, the younger half-brother, is almost archetypally bad, admiring corruption and craving the power he doesn’t have, growing into a mirror-image of his faithless, indolent father. Tei does a good job of making the good brother as interesting as the bad brother, though not an easy task, and she provides just enough psychological depth for us to care about the destinies of both young men. If perhaps it is difficult to get a true sense of the novel’s time (I felt this could be 1875 or 1775), the sense of place is overwhelming and rich and utterly convincing, so much so that it almost threatens at times to become the main character in this intriguing debut novel. LM


The Transcantabrian
Juan Pedro Aparicio
CHRISTIE BOOKS, £19.00 pp384, ISBN 9781873976333

Stuart Christie’s imprint should be congratulated for bringing to Britain this lovely piece of travel literature by Juan Pedro Aparicio. Here, he describes a railway journey from the Spanish town of Bilbao to the ancient medieval city of Léon. Beautifully illustrated in watercolours by Jose S. Carralero & Maribel Fraguas, and deftly translated by Michael Jacobs, its overall appearance is reminiscent of a large storybook. The journey begins on a grey June day shortly after eight in the morning, where Aparicio and his photographer embark at Bilbao’s Concordia station. Aparicio describes every detail, from the luxurious light blue seats of the first class coaches to the beautiful woman with slumped shoulders, whom he cannot resist chatting to. His tone is casual, honest and relaxed. The narrative is a balanced mix of his conversations with others and his own travelogue. The pace is appropriately slow, symbolising the long journey. Readers make their way up north, passing through Val-maseda, Pedrosa, the Cadagua Valley, and the Mena Valley, before reaching Léon. The illus trations become sharper and brighter as the book progresses, showing the train itself as it passes through the vast, dry landscape. The Transcantabrian was first published in Spain in 1982, and was such a success that a luxury train company christened itself with the same name. TM


Scottish Modernism and its Contexts 1918-1959
Margery Palmer McCulloch
EDINBURGH UNIVERSITY PRESS, £60.00 pp240, ISBN 9780748634743

London, Paris, New York as centres of modernist art, yes – but Montrose? Andrew O’Hagan some years ago made a comment along the lines that Scotland never had a modernist movement with the exception of Hugh McDiarmid. McCulloch’s very title is a kind of raised fist against those who would argue Modernism was the province of Ireland, England, the States, and the Continent, but not Scotland. She refuses to ask why Scotland was left out, preferring to assert that it wasn’t. Part of the problem is location, as McCulloch points out when noting the centre of cultural and literary activity MacDiarmid gathered around him in Montrose. “The absence in Scotland of a sufficiently large and adventurous audience interested in the promotion of new ideas, both Scottish and emanating from beyond Scotland” is an indictment, yet while that missing audience hampered the development of modernism in Scotland, it doesn’t mean modernism didn’t exist. McCulloch focuses on the obvious candidates: MacDiarmid, Catherine Carswell and Edwin Muir. However, she also gives space and attention to Marion Angus and the even less-valued Lorna Moon. One regret: an exploration of Barrie’s modernism would have been appreciated. LM


Democracy: 1,000 Years in Pursuit of British Liberty
Peter Kellner
MAINSTREAM, £25.00 pp544, ISBN 9781845965068

According to Peter Kellner, “Liberty is Britain’s gift to the world” and his book sets out to “tell the story of Britain’s journey towards liberty and democracy – two different but closely related values”. He sidesteps the obvious counter argument – that the British state has more unelected bodies with influence on power than any other western democracy and a strange penchant for secrecy and civil surveillance – and presents a series of historical documents to try and prove his problematic proposition. Chronologically, the documents range from ‘The Dooms of King Athelstan’ (c.930) to a speech on freedom of the press given by Paul Dacre in 2008. In between there are numerous  testimonies from poets, politicians and philosophers. The longer ones are edited down to 1,000 words. There’s not a lot here that couldn’t be sourced elsewhere though there is the text of a speech that Tony Benn was planning to deliver in 1960 when he wanted to remain in the House of Commons rather than be elevated to the House of Lords. The fact that he wasn’t allowed to deliver it forty years ago doesn’t help Kellner’s argument. Scotland is represented by Wallace, Burns, Hume, Smith and Gordon Brown, amongst others, and there’s even an extract from the ‘Report of the Scottish Constitutional Convention’ in case you need reminding that liberty has its limits. TM


Freedom – Short Stories Celebrating The Universal  Declaration Of Rights
Edited by Amnesty International
MAINSTREAM, £7.99 pp443, ISBN 9781845964948

To celebrate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Amnesty International has gathered together a starry and wide-ranging selection of writers: A.L. Kennedy, Joyce Carol Oates, Amit Chaudhuri, Ali Smith, Chuck Palahniuk, Banana Yoshimoto, and David Mitchell to name but a few. Each author has written a short story based on one of the Universal Declaration’s articles. In James Meek’s Kafka-esque prison nightmare, Zac, locked up without explanation, fears his neighbour has told lies about him. Marina Lewycka’s ‘businessman’ traffics in humans, selling girls to brothels where they are imprisoned and raped. Kate Atkinson’s story, ‘The War on Women’, features her trademark humour, but has a serious point to make about the injustices inflicted on women by the men closest to them, their husbands. Set against a dystopian vision of Edinburgh, women must cover their bodies and faces and are excluded from education. The trick in all of these stories is to make the world we know strange to us, and this volume does exactly what it’s meant to: it gives us an uncomfortable reminder of the freedoms we take for granted, freedoms which were hard-won, and which are still not universal, or indeed safe from reversal even here if we don’t guard our rights. LM


Zero
Brian McCabe
POLYGON, £9.99 pp80, ISBN 9781846971174

Brian McCabe’s new collection of poetry has a theme. It looks at numbers; it humanises them. Numbers are like forgotten members of a family in ‘The Seventh Sense’ (“All talk of the sixth/of or the five/- none speak of the seventh”), or are given human characteristics: unhappy thirteen, the  number no-one wants to befriend, has malevolence attributed to it. What are numbers for?, a pupil asks in ‘Unprovable Theorems’; it’s the symmetry of facial bones and the isolation of prime numbers, however, that contain the true mystery of who we really are, McCabe argues. He invokes the luminaries of maths such as Pythagoras, and in the instance of the sixteenth-century philosopher Giordano Bruno, who was burnt at the stake for arguing that the earth moved and the universe was infinite, shows the danger numbers once posed. Today, numbers still have the power to harm as the forlorn speaker of ‘A Proof’ knows: “It was around that time that my wife left. I felt numb to begin with, then number….” It’s an obvious pun perhaps, but it made me smile just the same, as did many of the poems in this volume. LM


Whose Turn for the Stairs?
Robert Douglas
HACHETTE SCOTLAND, £14.99 pp416, ISBN 9780755318919

The author of the autobiographical trilogy that began with Last Song of the Night Tram turns to fiction with Whose Turn for the Stairs?, a novel about the olden days of Glasgow. Set at the turn of 1950, the plot carousels round the twelve flats of 18 Dalbeattie St, a Maryhill tenement. Inside, we find some stock characters: the wise matriarch Granny Thomson, the kind Highlander Donald McNeil, and the evil wife-beater Richard Sneddon. Douglas in fact provides a quadruple-tiered chart explaining where each character lives, their ages and occupations. The momentum rises slowly as the plot pans in and out of their cosy homes, depicting the residents as cheerful and chummy despite the post-war poverty. The community thinks and acts collectively, refusing to be prejudiced against Irma, the new German girl, but remaining frosty to English Joan, an upper-class Southerner who eventually moves out. Douglas’ prose is simple and charming, with much colloquial dialogue. Phrases such as “pan loaf”, “pig’s melt” and “wally close” roll out from his characters’ tongues. Keenly sentimental, this novel will appeal to fans of Douglas’ previous trips down memory lane. But unrelenting rose-tinted vision can get tiresome. TM


Ménage
Ewan Morrison
JONATHAN CAPE, £12.99 pp345, ISBN 9780224084406

Three characters, two storylines and nine works of art add up to one busy plot in Ewan Morrison’s latest novel, Ménage. The title causes one to think the subject matter will move along the same  lines as Morrison’s debut erotic novel, Swung, yet this new book is more inspired by the Young British Artists movement of the ’90s. The artist here is Dorothy Sheers, a wealthy young woman who moves into a filthy Hoxton flat while attending Goldsmiths Art College. After meeting the eccentric, quotation-spouting Saul, and the more timid Owen, she gives up all aspirations of becoming a painter. Instead she creates a series of video art featuring the two boys, which leads to a love triangle. The antics of their young punk-rock selves are narrated alongside their sober adult selves, where Owen turns out to be an art critic, Dorothy a celebrity, and Saul a wise teetotaller living under a bridge. Alongside these narratives are essays written by Owen about Dorothy’s work, complete with still frames and footnotes. Morri-son parallels the past and present lives of the hopeless trio, building an argument that people don’t change. His style is loose and casual, switching constantly between the storylines. Yet, despite the ambitious framework, the necessary ingredient of passion is missing in both the prose and the characters. TM


Chucking it All: How Downshifting to a Windswept Scottish Island Did Absolutely Nothing to Improve my Quality of Life
Max Scratchmann
NICHOLAS BREALEY, £9.99 pp242, ISBN 9781857885309

Illustrator Max Scratchmann provides a wry account of his time spent in the Orkney Islands in Chucking It All. Searching for a quiet lifestyle to suit his sporadic income, he fulfils a long-time dream of moving to the Islands. With their belongings piled into an old truck, he and his girlfriend Chancery drive from Manchester to the village of Finstown in the parish of Firth. In this early part of the memoir Scratchmann convinces himself he has travelled to another world. Waking up the first morning in their farmhouse, he believes there’s a kangaroo outside. “It’s a hare”, Chancery shouts back. Their landlord, a small jolly man called Tumshie, is a dead ringer for Bilbo Baggins. The two women who run the fifty-fifty shop are characters out of Hans Christian Andersen. Scratch-mann has a strong, lolling voice and a knack for action-filled endings. Chapters are descriptive clauses: “Where We Don Our Greasepaint and Appear in the Village Pantomime,” or “Where I Became the Village Postman,” in which he delivers post to people without mail boxes. Scratch-mann’s memory for dialogue and his position as an outsider makes for some very humorous, Bill Bryson-eque reading. TM

From this Issue

Ten Years Hence

by David Torrance

The View from Castle Rock

by Magnus Linklater

Report Card

by Owen Dudley Edwards

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