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Volume 7 – Issue 3 – Reviews – Scottish Review of Books
by SRB

Volume 7 – Issue 3 – Reviews

August 12, 2011 | by SRB


Zoe Strachan
SANDSTONE PRESS, £8.99, 258PP ISBN 978-1905207732

This is the story of two working class young men – Richard, ‘the nervy lad from the ex-mining town’ and Luke, ‘the prickly youth from the city scheme’ – who become close friends at an elite Scottish university. As Richard says in his typically clear, defeatist voice that dominates the book, ‘It must have been fate that brought us together, chance was never so precise.’

Strachan’s writing style is colloquial, the emotional content strangely abrupt and truncated. There is a strange naïve rhythm to Strachan’s sentences, as if musing out loud. The calibre of her thoughts and insights give the language weight while her humour is merciless.

She has a penchant and talent for elaborate metaphors: Richard’s ‘memory was he thought, like a series of rooms. Rooms with white walls and cornices, smooth dusty floors and scuffed skirting,’ and she mixes her informal turn of phrase with the poetic. ‘He was still looking at me waiting…. and then he found and saw the expression in his eyes alter, like the changing scene through the window of a train.’

The structure of the novel alternates between the telling of the previous friendship between Richard and Luke at university and Richard’s present stay on a Scottish island with his sister Stephanie, trying to design a computer war game.

Richard’s work on creating games is neatly counter-pointed with the act of writing – he tries to create more intricate characters but there is pressure from his employers to be more simplistic and entertaining. Richard’s work seems to symbolize his difficulty with living in reality, the creating of war games mirroring the fantastical aspect of his sexual obsession with Luke.

Strachan carefully and skilfully depicts Luke’s insidious moral corruption of Richard whether through the plying of drugs or alcohol without ever making his nefarious designs explicit. What is even more intriguing is Richard’s unconscious complicity in this erosion of his self-respect. To the extent that Luke, even though Richard is constantly trying to position him as a satanic, magnetic figure, is not in the end to blame for Richard’s gradual fall from grace.

However Luke does exploit Richard’s obsession with him, turning Richard into a willing voyeur of his heterosexual exploits. The sex in this book – both hetero and homosexual – is violent, often sadomasochist and devoid of love. This seems to be a symptom of Richard and Luke both being damaged individuals. After one violent fight in a pub between two gay men, the punched one says, ‘I wish I weren’t like this.’ Richard, having observed this, ‘hadn’t been sure what the man meant, if he’d been talking about his character or his sexuality. Perhaps one day you had to rationalize the stories you’d told and the parts you’d played. Scrutinize the versions of yourself you’d created for others, and see how it matched up to the real thing.’

This novel is a recurring homage to the power and curse of memory. Strachan’s writing on the passing of youth is moving and accurate. But memory for Richard also has a sexual masochistic component which haunts the memory of his friendship with Luke. ‘Maybe we all relive our darkest, most degrading moments for our guiltiest, most secret pleasure.’

The triumph of the novel is the control of narrative suspense and the gradual revelation of how the two men are involved in the death of a female student which leads to their expulsion from university. The final chapter merges the two strands, bringing Luke into the present. Or as Strachan writes earlier in the book, ‘Stone blunts scissors, paper wraps stone: the present should trump the past.’

There is no doubt this is a hard-boiled book and it pulls no punches. Strachan writes in great detail about the psychology of her protagonists with objectivity and perception. The incredible trick she pulls off is that we do end up identifying with her introverted hero Richard, mainly because his journey is so complex and constantly blighted by his hopeless sexual obsession with the straight, taunting, malignant Luke – a man so alienated from himself he can say, ‘When I feel hollow, I’d do anything to fill the space inside me. Anything.’

This novel demands a lot from the reader – a certain hardness and resilience of spirit to cope with the bleak truth of Richard’s life. Richard is finally unable to break free from the obsession with his lost youth as it is interminably linked with his impossible longing for someone he will never be able to have. Someone he should never have fallen in love with.

Alice Thompson


Roddy Lumsden
BLOODAXE, £8.95, 80PP ISBN 978-1852249083

The last words of Roddy Lumsden’s poem ‘Daredevil’ in this collection run ‘I wish to be/The captain of the things which have no names.’ The poem considers the Scottish crossbill, which, declares its epigraph, ‘is the only vertebrate unique to the British Isles and was confirmed as a species in 2006 on the basis of having a distinctive bird song, a “Scottish accent”’.

The collection manifests, as well as declaring (not the same, as Lumsden, with his grip on solitude and secrets, knows) several presiding preoccupations: dust, cockroaches, light, skirts, skirting itself, love aslant, spaces between, dust again, and has a distinctive, indeed Scottish, song. He knows, and this may be his particular area of enfiefed sadness – each fine poet has one such – that no matter how precisely he can name things, they will disintegrate further and come to dust.

For he is a very palpable namer.

He is only captain of the things which have no names because he can go further towards naming the apparently floccinoccinihilipilificatory (the word flitters over the collection’s first work, ‘A Localised History of Dry Precipitation’, as do the names of Miss Flite’s caged birds in Bleak House, from Hope to Gammon and Spinach through Dust) than most of us can . That is, he sees far deep down into things, his sharp seeing conducing to his awareness that there is more yet to be comprehended, that there is always that beyond the beyond of the keenest vision.

There are words here that you may have to track back to their meaning, though most will be unfurled by context. This tact of exegetic context is the mark of a good listener and music maker, which a serious poet must be; in Lumsden’s case it goes beyond that to an attention so close that we might call him a vivisector rather than anything so stiff as a miniaturist; he does not demand that things hold still in order so minutely to be seen. What makes this possible is the particular form his intelligence takes, coming up, or so it feels, with the apt word in the moment of seeing, thus completely swerving any smell of the lamp. The words I had to trap and discover were ‘ochlophobia’ and ‘glisk’. ‘Foisoned’ gave me pause. You will find some, fall upon them, and wonder shortly how you did without.

At the level of the word, then, Lumsden is trustworthy and magical as a poet must be. He can do the soft splash of the right quiet adjective: ‘Gog and Magog – sweet, towering boys, long gone.’ He is very good on brand-names – Fetherlite, Gossamer, Tizer. He hits and catches his images like, well, like wasps on Sellotape (which is taken from ‘I Will Not Marry You’).

At the level of the line, he is doing something new, writing “Ripple Poems”, as he calls them, which seem so classically nice that when I came across the term ‘XXL’ in one of them, I thought it a number and not a t-shirt size. He glancingly snips at a critic who has remarked upon his “wit” in the past, so perhaps he would prefer it something understood, for it is assuredly present.

The undertow is change, which is always loss-in-gain. The themes are praise, pain, inappropriate emotion, ‘the fearful impracticalities of the real’, the blameworthiness –or not – of beauty, and a sort of stoic grandeur that is nowhere near blankness or negativity, as in the devastating words ‘We are not hopeless who do not know hope’.

Roddy Lumsden has come soon in his life to the tragic-comic awakening, suggested by the horrible verve and dying fall present in his title Terrific Melancholy itself, that ‘the museum of high spirits is cold and quiet’. He is so in command of his register that he can address great sweeps of time and the drops of which they are composed:

Nothing dreadful ever happens in one
Moment – each doubt’s shadow needs
an hour to fall. But sunlight
fills a moment, hope twists
its baby hand around a moment, yes
consoles the moment. A year will sag,
a marquee roof after the storm.
A century thrills in showing off
Its vile trophies, turns them in the light.

He can write the most evanescent colour in the spectrum, blue, and the sorest, least ‘dignified’ love, the unrequited across generations, which is all about time and ‘having arrived in this life separately’. Glisks of perception smart up from the page like gifts of light: ‘A glitch of silver shies along a whet, or roams a coil of steel’. Squirrels are ‘flea-drummed’. Pain ‘tombstones’ from temple to jaw; sea lights are ‘moochers: red apple, green apple’.

Loss is seen up close and long:

timelines slice

From dot to dot: caviar, clove-pegs,

Human folly is found out:

A rule is just a law with a grin

And later:

A rule is just a law
with doubts

Our little span is caught – ‘each golden age gives way to thaw’ – in periods adjusted precisely to the necessities of the emotion expressed:

The ghost we imagine equals
the terror within us, the you
I imagine is seldom the you that I get.
Compromise is sturdier than love.

Elsewhere in this literally wonderful collection, Lumsden uses the metaphor of the pestle and mortar, envisioning the first as selfish, the second as selfless. He is in his art both, at a pitch of stony applied and spicy refining work that turns dust again to dust and looks close and hard upon it.

Candia McWilliam


Andrew Greig
BIRLINN, £12.99, 240PP ISBN 978-1846971921

Mountain-climbing is a subject Andrew Greig has returned to many times in his career. In addition to Summit Fever (1985) and Kingdoms of Experience (1986), non-fiction accounts of expeditions he undertook in the Himalayas, Greig has also written poetry about climbing. With an insightful introduction by poet Roderick Watson, Getting Higher collects Men on Ice (1977) and Western Swing (1993) as well as selections from This Life, This Life: New and Selected Poems (2006). This new volume chronicles Greig’s fascination with conquering peaks over the past thirty-five years.

Getting Higher begins with Men on Ice, a narrative sequence inspired by Eliot’s The Waste Land and the typographic stylings of the Black Mountain poets. Written when Greig was 26-years-old, these poems mix adventure and philosophical musings. The dramatis personae consists of four climbers: the intellectual Grimpeur, the barbaric Axe Man, the melancholic Poet and a spiritual leader dubbed ‘the Bear’. On the ground, they are a confused bunch. The Bear tells them: ‘You suffer from reality vertigo / the view makes your head spin.’ As the quartet makes its ascent, they achieve a sense of peace inspired by the high altitude. For Grimpeur, the way forward begins with silent meditation:

World within mind Mind within world
A shift of the light
and the self is uncurled

Men on Ice closes with the climbers asleep near the mountain’s summit. For a time, that was the last we heard of them. But in 1991, in Morocco, Greig dreamed of a sequel, Western Swing. The Men on Ice band reunited for a Holy Grail-like quest. Characters were given new names and identities. The Poet became female, a sensitive and troubled woman named Stella. Grimpeur is now Ken, as in the philosopher Anthony Kenny, or simply as in ‘ah ken’. The Axe Man’s new name was Brock and the Bear became the Heretical Buddha. Andrew Greig steps in as the narrator, calling himself Drew or Anada, the name of the Buddha’s servant. The quintet start their journey in the hills of Glencoe and make their way to Kathmandu in their search for a mythical healing Blade.

Western Swing is a natural partner to Men on Ice. Both share a spirit of adventure and boisterous characters. The language is equally lively. Greig inserts ironic references to pop culture, modern philosophy and Greek mythology in both sequences. In Men on Ice, he even lifts phrases from an old French Higher textbook: ‘Your tie is too gaudy.’ In case the reader misses a reference, glossaries are provided after each sequence.

To mimic the characters’ physical movement and their vocal utterances, Greig experiments with the layouts of his poems. Words are capitalised and emboldened, and punctuation is used liberally to suggest proper intonation. The indentation of certain lines gives longer poems a sculpted appearance, creating the image of a mountain on the page. Greig also arranges words diagonally as if they are falling letter by letter, perhaps symbolising the slips and slides of the climbers.

Furthermore, the sequences are enlivened by James Hutcheson’s black and white illustrations which were included in the first printing of Men on Ice. The portraits of the Poet, Grimpeur, and the Axe Man convey their individual features as well as their shared grim expressions. In Western Swing, though the group’s faces have grown older, their eyes still have a determined stare.

Getting Higher’s mix of poetry sequences, individual poems and illustrations delights and surprises the reader. To cap it off, the book also features loose phrases from Greig’s poetry, printed in light ink and placed on random blank pages throughout the book. The closing impression is not merely a collection
of selected works, but of a mind-map describing Greig’s long engagement with mountains.

Theresa Munoz


Ali Smith
HAMISH HAMILTON, £16.99, PP357 ISBN 978-0241143407

The reviews have been out for a couple of months now. This is the one about the dinner guest who leaves the table and locks himself in the spare room and efuses to come out.

It’s an intriguing set-up.

Around it revolve the lives of the others at the house in Greenwich on that evening. We also get some of the back-story (or, aha, is it?) about Miles, a.k.a. Milo, the lodger in the en-suite bedroom.

The blurb, thus: ‘There but for the fuses disparate perspectives in a crucially communal expression of identity, and explores our very human attempts to navigate between despair and hope, enormity and intimacy, cliché and grace.’ (Did I say that this is a novel? Well, it is.)

The recent reviewers talk of the author’s intelligence. (On the book’s back cover, this endorsement – ‘She’s a genius, genuinely modern in the heroic, glorious sense’ – from Alain de Botton, no less.) They extol her literary playfulness, the style games. Indeed. Ali Smith does take delight in language and in confusing our lazy expectations about punctuation, types of type, even boring old grammar. No inverted commas round speech, for instance, if that is what you’re used to. There’s TXTspeak, some literary rap, oh and a bit of morse code for good measure. ArooooooOOOooo, a dog sings.

I hate to spoil the party, but would it be churlish to suggest there might actually be a surfeit of intelligence here?

Very intelligent people don’t always write the most successful novels.

The cleverness about writing, I suggest, is in knowing when to simplify and reduce.

Of course it depends what you’re expecting from a novel, and since there are no rules – whatever writing academies might claim to the contrary – it can only end up as a matter of personal taste.

The conceit of the locked bathroom door could, almost, belong to one of those Italian films of the 1960s which influenced Ali Smith’s last novel, The Accidental. It would have suited Muriel Spark very well. Muriel Spark wore her intelligence less ostentatiously. She tended – which was her cleverness – to write down. She simplified without losing her nferences. Or, to put it another way, she gave an accessible and straightforward surface story while inviting us (if we wished to venture) into the depths. The man would have vanished into the spare room for metaphysical reasons: we would have found that a social comedy of manners, had turned into a consideration of faith, at perhaps half the length of this book.

None of her books requires five initial epigraphs.

Computers have made us very prolix. Mrs Spark, writing in her thin Thin’s notebooks, weighed every word.

It’s the novelist’s struggle to make a book memorable. In part, I believe, one writes for the “inner eye”. Things are best remembered when pictured: that’s the visual component of writing.

The unyielding door, fine. But the verbal pyrotechnics, those fireworks on the page, the somersaulting. The effect has faded by the time I’ve turned the page. I was reminded of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, the exhaustion of reading quite so many pages. Both are books of the mind. The eye is left searching.

I do know what the intention is. It’s to show the sheer profusion of life’s life-ness. We’ve forgotten how to think for ourselves, we look for easy rhymes (so to speak) and end up with bland doggerel. But how more complex it all becomes here! Cue: talk about the sun, the moon, stars (Greenwich Observatory, ultra-deep field telescopes), Hamlet quotes, while telling us jokes signposted), and mixing up the oeuvres of Proust and Schwarzenegger (another joke, ha ha), and name-checking Madonna, Bjork, the Wombles, etc. Legions of detail, accumulated as a defence against loss – forgetfulness – boredom. But the hazard of such promiscuity is that, in the end, all is much of a muchness and nothing retains particular value: in life, or in a novel.

SPOILER. The Milo story-line peters out, rather disappointingly. It transpires that the door has been unlocked for the past few months, and the occupant has pedalled 3,000 miles on the exercise bike inside. But in fact there are two endings: you’re left to opt for A or B, although it’s quite nice when you’re reading a book to have that decision taken for you.

A STORY ABOUT A STORY ABOUT TELLING STORIES, or – rather – about writing stories. (Reading stories means understanding them, or trying to: whereas writing is simply … writing. Words, words, words.)

It’s odd, when you consider that an earlier book by Smith was called Other Stories and Other Stories, that the author appears embarrassed to just go ahead and do that: play the narrative game. Narrative is as omni-present in 2011-lives as it ever was. Only the sun imploding will put an end to it.

Oh well. Ali Smith is who she is (intelligent, as we know), and such are the type of books she writes, and for those who like that kind of thing (as Dame Muriel would put it) that is the kind of thing they like, and variety adds to the gaiety of nations.

So, dear reader, you pays your money and

Ronald Frame


Andrew Nicoll
QUERCUS, £12.99, 368PP ISBN 978-1849164719

Andrew Nicoll’s first novel The Good Mayor won critical acclaim and a Saltire Prize which might be a recipe for second novel syndrome. The opening line of his new novel The Love and Death of Caterina (‘Only a few weeks after it happened, Luciano Hernando Valdez was almost unable to believe that he had ever been a murderer’) is so engaging, however, that any concerns about unworthy succession are immediately alleviated.

That’s not to say there aren’t issues. Somewhere between the two novels Nicoll has acquired a penchant for similes. In The Love and Death of Caterina a lot of things are like a lot of other things. Sometimes they are two to a sentence (‘like a waterfall, like a river dropping off a cliff’), occasionally they border on offensive (‘breasts…like peaked cannonballs hung in bags of ivory silk’).

There may be more craft in this than is at first apparent. The ‘bags of ivory silk’ are in the sightline of Dr. Valdez and they belong to Caterina, the young and beautiful student-waitress who, he hopes, will invigorate him. Valdez is a writer and something of a national treasure in his Latin American country. There’s a suspicion, however, that Valdez is unworthy of his reputation and this suspicion deepens as the story progresses. Perhaps the terrible simile is his rather than Nicoll’s.

Valdez is blocked and can produce only a single line about a tawny yellow cat. This condition frees up a lot of time which he spends womanizing, playing polo, giving rote lectures at the university and refusing to address the secrets of his past. He also attends to his mother who is the guardian of the largest of these secrets.

A cast of characters circle Valdez such as you would expect to find in any stereotypical Latin American country. Dr Cochrane thinks himself descended from Scotland’s Admiral Cochrane, famed for his work with the Chilean and Brazilian navies when they were battling the Spanish and the Portuguese. Cochrane has attracted the attentions of the sinister policeman Commandante Camillo, state guardian and defender of dictatorship. Inevitably there’s also a priest, a shaky Jesuit.

There is much to admire about the way Nicoll takes this standard line-up of South American types and fleshes it out. Characters leave and return, develop, drop hints and build conflict. Short chapters become shorter still as the tension mounts towards a denouement that the first sentence of the book has already announced. It takes confidence to remove this potential element of suspense, but the decision pays off.

There is a limit to what he achieves, however, and the comparisons that have been made between Nicoll and Graham Greene are where that is reached. There are obvious similarities of location and character types, but they are only broad ones. Greene’s locations were consistent and convincing whereas Nicoll’s Latin America occasionally seems closer to home than it should be. The use of terms like ‘sheep shagger’ or ‘piss off’, a bus where you can’t stand beyond a painted white line or talk to the driver, banks that have suddenly employed door greeters to reclaim their lost reputations, all seem less Latin America and more, well, Dundee.

It is hard to comprehend the Latin American soul without knowing the Catholic one. Nicoll has none of Greene’s facility for exploring the political, doctrinal and personal conflicts at the heart of Latin American Catholicism. Father Gonzales is, by some distance, the most poorly drawn character in the novel. For a brief period he even seems unsure if he is a priest or a monk. He is not a whisky priest though he would certainly be more interesting if he were. Instead his fears are easily defined and he is intimidated by the ghost of Maximilian Kolbe whose example – the friar volunteered to die in the place of a stranger in Auschwitz – he has been singularly unable to follow. A trip Gonzales makes to a barriada where he hears songs of freedom in the midst of dire poverty is an opportunity missed.

Ironically, some of the claims made for Nicoll’s work bring him close to his creation Valdez whose reputation relies on national acclamation. A more sober view, however, is still a positive one. The similes are eventually endurable, the pages turn quickly, the plot thickens and rises, the predictable mixes with the unexpected, and when the book is finally put down there is little to stop you from looking forward to Nicholl’s next one.

Harry McGrath


Kapka Kassabova
ALMA BOOKS, £12.99, 320PP ISBN 978-1846881510

Travel writer, memoirist and poet Kapka Kassabova takes us to an exotic and remote part of South America for her new novel, but readers shouldn’t expect a dry travelogue of a tale. On the contrary, this is a wonderfully intriguing story about relationship dynamics, our innermost fears, and a Lost-type plot that keeps building momentum with every page. The word ‘compelling’ is often used lazily in reviews without earning its place; in this case, it’s the perfect word to describe this book.

We begin with Ute and her husband Jerry travelling through an ill-frequented part of the South American coast, sometime in 2009. Ute is, like her creator, a travel writer and she usually explores new territories alone. Her academic husband harbours dreams of writing a novel, and has decided to accompany her in the hope of a holiday that will give him time to write. On a bus to Puerto Seco, which has a national park and animal reserve, they are advised by a salesman to stay at the Villa Pacifica.

Off-road, and by sheer chance, they find the hotel. Socialist rabble-rouser Mikel and his hippy wife Lucia run Villa Pacifica. Guest-books are only filled up until 2006, the year that hurricane El Nino struck and did huge amounts of damage. Mikel seems to think that event happened only a year earlier, but Ute cannot be sure, as most of the time she is fighting sleepiness and nightmares. A skin condition flares up and she worries that Jerry is taking too much interest in another guest, Eve, the American wife of obnoxious Max.

Inhabitants of Puerto Seco aren’t forthcoming either. Consuelo runs a cafe and sells paintings by her cancer-ridden husband. She and Mikel used to be friends but won’t say why they no longer speak. More guests arrive: party girl Liz and her companion Tim; wealthy businessman Alejandro and his ‘trophy’ wife, Alma; Luis with his mother, wife and baby son. Hector, who works in the hotel, talks about Villa Pacifica and past events in a manner that confuses Ute further, whilst the handsome animal supervisor, Carlos, simply causes her lustful, adulterous thoughts.

Kassabova does an excellent job of ratcheting up the sexual tension between this disparate party of unhappy couples, quarrelling and misunderstanding each other in the heat. There are other sources of worry: Max is arguing constantly with the others, insulting Mikel with his business plans for the hotel and offering to pay him exorbitant sums to turn it into a tourist play-park. He also plays tricks on fellow guests, occasionally putting them in danger. Meanwhile, Jerry is disappearing every night to work on his novel and Ute is starting to wonder if their marriage was a mistake. She has vivid dreams about her mother and wonders if her lonely childhood made her gravitate towards family man Jerry.

All the characters here are credibly drawn and intriguing enough in themselves not to be overwhelmed by the luscious, heat-ravaged landscape that surrounds them, which Kassabova takes time to describe in accessible, well-written prose. The politics of environmentalism are lightly touched on too, as are local customs and beliefs, just enough to make the thoughtful reader pause and think a little. This may be a psychological tale but it’s also about place, and the marrying of the two here works perfectly.

Which makes me wonder why, with its ingredients of exotic location, mystery, fluid style and intriguing characters, Villa Pacifica wasn’t picked up by a bigger publisher. Excellent novels are published by small companies all the time, but Kassabova recalls Isabel Allende in her style and subject matter, and her book seems to me to be precisely the kind bigger publishers would fight over, that would appeal to a large and predominantly female readership (women buy more novels than men). They’ve missed a trick here, and Alma, Kassabova’s publishers, must be mighty pleased with their acquisition. Villa Pacifica is a splendid read, and deserves a wide audience.

Lesley McDowell


Nicol Ljubić
VAGABOND VOICES, £11.00, PP186 ISBN 9781908251015

The savage break-up of Yugoslavia into its constituent republics was a defining event of the 1990s. The wars between Serbia and Croatia, and within Bosnia and Kosovo, were a harrowing reminder of the conflict that tore Europe apart in the 1940s, and underlined how far the continent still had to go to live up to its more utopian rhetoric. They demonstrated the diplomatic and military impotence of the EU, while Kosovo saw the first glimmerings of Tony Blair’s doctrine of liberal interventionism, an idea that would later have consequences in Iraq and Afghanistan.

9/11 has tended to over-shadow the significance of the Balkan wars. Hindsight has painted the 1990s in gentler colours, as a sunlit decade of peace and prosperity guaranteed by the USA’s position as sole superpower, and by the gradual absorption of the former Soviet bloc into the benign embrace of the free market. In the Anglophone world, little recently seems to have been written about the Balkan wars, and there is no real sense of their cultural impact. Nicol Ljubić’s second novel, published by the Glasgow-based company Vagabond Voices, might change that. A controlled and quietly forceful book, The Stillness of the Sea uses the trial of a man accused of war crimes during the Bosnian War to demonstrate the difficulty, if not the impossibility, of making black-and-white moral judgements when individual experience is such a welter of trauma and evasion that no one can fully understand another person’s motives.

The novel follows Robert, a young historian who has a connection with an accused war criminal on trial at The Hague. The defendant, Zlatko Šimić, is accused of organising the murder of 42 men, women and children at the beginning of the conflict, deceiving them into taking refuge in a house while he arranged for paramilitary forces to burn them to death. As the prosecuting council calls up his witnesses, and as Robert wanders through the quiet streets of the city between sessions, he recalls his relationship with Šimić’s daughter, Ana, who he first met working in Berlin. Evasive and defensive, she had seemed unwilling to give much of her story away. A Serbian in a foreign country, Ana felt the pressure of assumed guilt because of her ethnicity, and raged against western opinion, the belief the Serbs were the sole aggressors in the conflict.

Robert, for his part, is estranged from his background. His father is from Croatia, but he was born in Germany and has never learned his father’s language. Robert was envious of her relationship with her father, a university professor and an expert on Shakespeare. It is this other man, cultured and well-loved, Robert tries to keep in mind as he listens to evidence mount up against Šimić in the courtroom. Which Šimić is the real one? And if both takes on his past are correct, then how is it possible that decent, educated people can commit such appalling crimes?

Ljubić has no time for moral absolutes, which is perhaps both his novel’s strength and its weakness. Moral certainty won’t take us any closer to comprehending the fundamentally baffling reasons why people kill their neighbours. One of Robert’s chance acquaintances in The Hague shocks him by her vehement hatred of the defendant, and her scorn for the supposed necessity of a trial to find him guilty.

Ana herself, in defending her country, repeats the long-discredited claim that footage of concentration camp victims at Trnopolje was deliberately staged by British journalists to justify western intervention. And yet, by casting doubt on the suitability of judicial procedure to condemn or punish crimes like the murder of the 42 people Šimić may or may not have killed, Ljubić comes close to hinting that UN-mandated courts act as little more than ‘victor’s justice’. This may be evidence of a capacious sense of humanity, but it also comes nowhere near offering an alternative method of how to deal with crimes against humanity. Some things in the end are objective, and not everything can be reduced to the relativism of competing perspectives.

Despite this, The Stillness of the Sea is a significant achievement. The relationship between Ana and Robert is tenderly observed, and although I am not qualified to judge on the original language (my Serbo-Croat is not what it should be), Anna Paterson’s translation feels graceful and precise, and perfectly captures Robert’s elegiac sense of sadness and loss. This is challenging literature in the best sense of the word, in that it undermines received opinion.

Richard W Strachan


Angus Peter Campbell
POLYGON, £9.99, 164PP ISBN 978-1846971990

Angus Peter Campbell’s new poetry collection, Aibisidh/ABC, its poems composed in Gaelic with English translation, and in one instance Italian, is a collection that floods the senses with surges of original imagery. Water-related descriptions are apt here. Images of moving water, of tidal energy, predominate, giving Campbell’s poetry a cyclical underpinning; here, death, no more than life, does not have the last word.

The impression from the outset is Campbell’s collection projects an awareness that he and the Gaelic culture he describes are between places. The paradox in this collection is that somehow the speaker is both adrift and yet retains a strong sense of rootedness. This is particularly clear in ‘Eadar an Cuilitheann’s an Cuan Sgìth’, a beautifully and tenderly described memory of an exchange between Sorley MacLean and Campbell: ‘“Cuir mar seo e,” fhreagair thu,/“gun deach m’ altram eadar Beinn is Cuan.”’ (‘“Put it like this”, you replied,/“that I was born between the Cuillin and the Minch.”’). Campbell uses the landscape to describe not only MacLean’s position of ‘cinnt is strì’ (‘faith and doubt’) but also the legacy that Campbell has inherited from the older poet and is now making sense of in his own way.

This collection explores themes of childhood, aging and rebirth. Manifestations of childhood are present in ‘Sneachda’ (‘Snow’) which has an affinity with Joyce’s imagery in the short story ‘The Dead’, in which snow covers all of Ireland, effectively silencing the land and its history. In Campbell’s poem, the snow is a subjective vision. The illusions of age and time melt overnight and the sense of rebirth is palpable; spring comes and children are heard playing outside. In other poems remembrances of childhood and the poet’s connection to his family filter through, like memories of the sunlight shining through the bottle of citronella in his father’s shed in ‘Gathan’ (‘Rays’).

The subject of language is also touched by the same sense of memory and connectivity in the middle section of the book. In ‘Aibisidh’ (‘ABC’), musical memories become a cacophony of voices; fragments of song-lines bring into being the figures of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Serge Gainsbourg, and Nancy from Oliver among others, their voices mingling with familiar lines from the Scottish song tradition and hymns. The poem gives the impression of a radio in the poet’s mind being moved from one station to another, just as the mind moves around fragments of memory.

It is in this section that Campbell’s concern for Gaelic is at its clearest, yet the celebratory moments ensure that these poems do not fall into simple lamentation. In ‘Eapaig’ (‘Epic’), Campbell envisions a new time for his native literature in which the creator of the next Gaelic epic rises from the bottom of the sea. Interestingly, this new creator will not belong to the earth: ‘Bidh Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair/ mar chreag dhi, marbh, balbh.’ (‘Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair/ will be like a rock to her, dead, dumb.’)

‘Gràmar’ (‘Grammar’) is a particularly poignant poem. The sense of separation, portrayed so beautifully in an understated mention of emigrant ships, can also be felt in relation to the way language is used and passed on. Campbell’s warning is clear in the line ‘mar gun cumadh tu saoghal le cèilidh’ (‘as if you could retain a world through a ceilidh’).

There are questions regarding the direction of the Gaelic language in the 21st century – the bareness of an imagined Gaelic bookstall, issues relating to Gaelic Orthographic Conventions (GOC), the use of Dwelly’s dictionary, and the underlying danger that Gaelic may one day be as obscure in meaning as birdsong. Of course the real dichotomy in Campbell’s book is that while poetry is food to him, (described as salt herring in ‘Bàrdachd’, and as a replacement for apples, potatoes and milk in ‘Maothalach’), his role as a poet in relation to a language in a state of flux means that emotion must engage with linguistic wisdom in his poems. Campbell achieves this with poise.

Campbell is aware of the fragmentary nature of lives, memories and connections to the Gaelic language. The greatest strength of this new collection is this awareness, and the poet’s ability to resurrect history and myth, to make them sing so vibrantly that the grave is forgotten and its fragments and bones take on new shapes.

Emma Dymock

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