Review: ‘Laurus’ by Eugene Vodolazkin

laurus-eugene-vodolazkinMostly when we think of science fiction, we think of spaceships and robots and giant floating eyes. Now, don’t get me wrong, I like all these things, but they can be somewhat limiting. I prefer a broader understanding of science fiction as a genre that describes societies or phenomena that have a different understanding of science – or more expansively, of causality, or of epistemology, or of whatever other heuristic one can think of to explain the universe’s perplexingly continued existence – to our own. This different understanding can take the form of simple speculative fiction that asks, for example, what society would look like if everyone had a giant television in their front room and had to shout at it every morning, but it can also go backwards, and imagine understandings of science that are now generally discarded. The pinnacle of this genre is Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day, in which Pynchon essentially tries to write speculative science fiction from the point of view of someone with a cutting-edge understanding of physics c. 1895-1910 and none of the hindsight afforded by the intervening century. In Laurus, the second novel from Eugene Vodolazkin, a professor of medieval Russian history (translated by Lisa C. Hayden), we have an even more radical example of the genre: science fiction from the point of view of a medieval Russian hermit, who, as you might imagine, doesn’t have an understanding of causality that we might now, with the benefit of six centuries of hindsight, consider all that well-informed.

Laurus is the story of a man largely called Arseny, but sometimes called other things, who is born in European Russia in the fifteenth century, becomes a healer, then becomes a holy fool who throws clods of mud at people in the hope of dislodging the demons, “small and large”, that cling to their backs, and then becomes a healer again. The science we see, therefore, is largely medical and occasionally demonic. There are a few asides, however, in which a ship’s captain explains some basic physics to his attentive audience, such as how, while it is impossible to sail around the world (because water becomes ice in the cold polar region and salt in the hot equatorial one), it is probable that one can sail into the heavens:

the captain told of water that bathed the atmosphere and cooled the luminaries. He had no doubt those waters were salted. In his view, he was talking about the most ordinary of seas, which, for certain reasons, was located over the heavenly firmament. Otherwise why is it, the captain asked, that people in England recently left church and discovered an anchor that had been lowered from the heavens on a rope? And after that they heard, from above, the voices of sailors who were attempting to raise the anchor and when some sailor finally descended on the anchor rope, he died just after reaching the earth, as if he had drowned in water.

The only lack of clarity here concerned whether the waters that lie over the firmament are joined to the waters in which we sail.

We must admire the captain’s knowledge, but, more importantly, we must admire his awareness of the limits of his knowledge, captured with some irony by the narrator’s voice: the “only lack of clarity”. Always we are so close to and so far from knowing how the world works; always we are so confident that we have good explanations for natural mysteries, like why anchors fall out of the sky in England so frequently, but always we are so wrong.

The worldview largely held in Laurus, then, attempts to explain things rationally. Characters observe phenomena that lie some distance beyond their understanding, but they try to make sense of them anyway. Usually they do so through an elaborate science of correspondence, underpinned by the faith that everything is just so because of the exertions of the Almighty. Arseny is taught this scheme by his grandfather Christofer, from whom he learns a lot about herbs. The plant “scarem that grows in low lands”, for example, can do a whole variety of things: “do carry it on your person ther, wher thou wish to ask for some money or bread; yf you ask a man, place it on the right side under your shirt, on the left yf you ask a woman; yf there are minstrels playing, toss that herb under their feet and they will fight”. Similarly, “Carrying turquoise on one’s person protects from murder because that stone has never been seen on a murdered person”. The novel seems to endorse this understanding, although the narration is always laced with a little irony: “Christofer placed purple loosestrife under Arseny’s pillow so he would fall asleep easily. Which is why Arseny fell asleep easily.”

something happens, and something else happens, and the two things seem to be linked, and so the one thing must have caused the other

Such medieval causalities are endorsed repeatedly throughout the novel, particularly because Arseny has essentially been endowed with the ability to perform miracles. A mayor is upset when Arseny, his guest, pours an expensive glass of wine on the floor. A holy man chastises the mayor: “How can it be, holy fool Foma asks the mayor, that you don’t understand why God’s servant Ustin emptied your wine to the northeast?” The reason, of course, is that there was a fire in Novgorod, and Arseny wanted to put it out, so he poured his wine on the floor. The mayor, a good empiricist, withholds his judgement until he has sent a rider to Novgorod to discern the truth; it turns out that there had indeed been a fire on the day in question in Novgorod, and it had mysteriously stopped around lunchtime, just as Arseny was pouring his wine on the ground. The mayor, to his credit, takes this news very humbly, and asks for Arseny’s forgiveness.

This example describes the novel’s essential understanding of causality: something happens, and something else happens, and the two things seem to be linked, and so the one thing must have caused the other. We have now largely moved on from such a simple understanding of correspondence in our science, but it is still a kind of common sense, and it lingers in other areas of human endeavour. In literature, for example, correspondence is always planned and is always meaningful, as Arseny discovers by reading a romance about Alexander the Great over and over again. Alexander, we are told, has had many great adventures:

After six days in the middle of the desert, Alexander’s troops encountered astonishing people with six arms and six legs each. Alexander killed many of them and took many alive. He wanted to bring them to the inhabited world but nobody knew what these people ate, so they all died. […] Later on, after walking another six days, Alexander saw a mountain to which a man was bound with iron chains. That man was a thousand sazhens in height and two hundred sazhens in width. Alexander was surprised when he saw him but dared not approach.

There is much internal correspondence here: Alexander and his men walk for six days in the desert, and then encounter people with six arms and six legs; then, after another six days of walking, they find a giant man. We are perhaps more surprised that the giant man they encounter is a thousand sazhens high and two hundred sazhens wide rather than a corresponding six by six than we are by his size, for miracles are in many ways unsurprising. Arseny considers the Alexander Romance to be as factual as the other books he reads, which are largely medical treatises and lists of herbs and their uses; there is no difference in terms of credibility between the fact that men with six arms and six legs might exist and the fact that giving someone a herb might help them sleep.

As Vodolazkin constantly reminds us, this understanding should inflect our own reading of Laurus. The novel emphasises its own strange textuality, making it impossible for the reader to forget that she is reading a novel: through the narrator’s fussy historical commentary (“He was convinced the rules of personal hygiene should be upheld, even in the Middle Ages”); through a linguistic register that veers enthusiastically between modern and technical (“your prognosis is favorable”), modern and vernacular (“Everyone in Rus’ knows that you’re not, like, you know, allowed to beat holy fools”), and Early Modern English (“Golde rubbed and taken internally cures those who speake unto themselves and ask questions of themselves and answere themselves and become downhearted”); through tenses that shift without warning between present and past, as if the narrator can’t quite figure out if these events are still happening; and through occasional interludes from the future, either as described by the mostly omniscient narrator or as experienced by a character called Ambrogio, who Arseny meets on pilgrimage to Jerusalem and who has visions of, for example, “a gale in the White Sea on October 1, 1865. The Solovetsky Monastery’s steamer Faith was sailing from Anzer Island to Big Solovetsky Island. It was carrying pilgrims from Verkhny Volochok.” These strategies emphasise that we are reading a text, much like Arseny reads the Alexander Romance, and that the text is historically contingent: it describes a medieval world that is largely fictional and long gone, and that is full of things that are not real, or are at least improbable.

no one sensible reads science fiction and thinks that it is describing things as they were

Vodolazkin reminds us not to read as credulously as Arseny; such credulity is always a risk of historical fiction, which can sometimes seem as if it wants to trick its reader into thinking that it shows how things actually were. This is why I prefer to think of Laurus as a kind of science fiction, because no one sensible reads science fiction and thinks that it is describing things as they were. And Vodolazkin reminds us not to read credulously in the broadest possible sense of reading: reading in the novel refers not just to reading manuscripts, fables, and recipes, but also to reading bodies, which is an important analogy for Arseny’s medical practice (“How could I not know when it is written all over every christened person’s face?”), and to reading time, history, life, and creation: reading is understood as the fundamental way of understanding exactly what is going on in the world. Ambrogio claims that “All history is, to a certain extent, a scroll in the Almighty’s hands. Some people (me, for example) are granted the opportunity to peek every now and then, to see what lies ahead. There is just one thing I do not know: if that scroll will suddenly be thrown away”, and he means this in I think an essentially literal way. Reading things is his form of epistemology, as was not uncommon in the period before the scientific revolution, when some people with a Christian bent of mind tended to think of nature as God’s second revelation, after the text of the Bible, that should be subject to the same kinds of interpretation. So Laurus is a work of science fiction about a society in which reading is the dominant episteme, but the novel displays a fierce awareness of all the problems and absurdities of relying on reading things, spotting correspondences, and inventing stories to explain them as a path to finding truth or understanding anything. We know this, of course, as modern readers, because, while we don’t tend to use our reading skills in most areas of knowledge, we have become very sophisticated readers of novels, capable of revelling in their falseness, but capable also of alerting ourselves to their correspondences, and inventing stories to explain them, just as I have done here, and, if the stories please us enough, believing in them, and thinking of them as a truth, for the time being, until we read a story that pleases us better.

Tim is a writer and dilettante who has just moved to California. Follow him on Twitter @tpakennett2

Laurus
Author: Eugene Vodolazkin
Translator: Lisa C. Hayden
ISBN: 1780747551
Published by: Oneworld

Review: ‘Resonance’ by Gary Beck

resonancecoverThis is the latest collection of poetry by Gary Beck, former New York theatre director and latterly novelist, playwright and poet. Beck has had poems published previously in a number of journals, including Structo. Resonance is billed as a collection that examines the contemporary individual and cultural experience; a work that confronts the reader with pressing and uncomfortable social and political matters.

For the most part, Beck’s poems are written in free verse. The non-metrical, non-rhyming format can obviously work very well, but it does require a special turn of phrase or image to leave a lasting impression.

The book is prefaced by an excerpt from one of Beck’s essays in which he says he is “more concerned with the message rather than the ‘poetic quality of poetry’”. He goes on to say that “if I may have abandoned metaphor and simile, it is not that I despise them, but I must deliver what I believe to be a necessary blunt message”. Poetry without metaphor and simile would be like a lightly grilled ocelot: a very rare beast – but Beck does not abandon them entirely and both metaphor and simile are plentiful here.

Given the wide range of social, political, economic and religious troubles that have affected the world in recent times, the issues that Beck rails against seem, strangely, to hark back to an era in which the Cold War threatened to become a hot war, such as these lines from ‘Children of Deprivation’:

In the world of power,
men stand by the buttons
of weapons of mass destruction,
eager to slay millions,
while we sit in comfort in our homes
newspapered, tv’d, dreamy,
careless of our sentinels, foes.

The poems ‘Radiation Rhapsody’ and ‘Premiers and Presidents’ give off the same vibe of Cold War dread. Does the prospect of nuclear war still resonate with people now? Surely, in the modern world, the bigger bogeyman is the threat of a seemingly random and unpredictable extremist attack? And so it goes on. ‘This is the voice of one man singing’ is the tale of a man who has been through the school of hard knocks and who seems to welcome the possibility of Armageddon that the Cuban Missile Crisis offered. ‘Idi’ is a short poem about (can you guess?) Idi Amin, the Ugandan despot who fled into exile in 1979. Again, it’s hard to see this as relevant to contemporary global politics, unless of course Amin is serving as a metaphor for all despots and dictators.

In a funny moment, ‘Rant’ shows us a polemicist who is distracted from his rage by a pretty girl. ‘Respite’ briefly ditches the free verse and has rhyme, rhythm and meter. It is a poem in which a lonely person finds brief pleasure in watching children play. It’s a nice image and sentiment.

Some prose poetry also features, a good example being ‘Art Calls’, which is about lost possibilities. It contains the line “Years of my lost time, where are you?”, a feeling with which many readers will identify.

Another prose poem, ‘Night Thoughts’, feels less in line with common experience. Within a neighbourhood there are domestic arguments and neighbours gossiping (so far, so good). It then switches to a school next door:

Within that building, I muse, the lives of so many innocents are mutilated. The empty corridors, classrooms, desks that I visualize finally feel to me the way they must feel to the child, who gropes for help in this labyrinth of confusion that is frigid, barren and eternally damning.

One would hope that the schools of New York were not so intimidating. It is an alien image, seemingly echoing the sentiments of Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’, which was written about school experiences of the 1950s. Towards the end we find the poems ‘Abandoned Youth’, ‘Painful Youth’ and ‘Doomed Youth’. You have to feel sorry for the young people of New York.

As a book of poetry, the pages turn quickly but there are few highlights that stick in the mind or resonate with the reader.

~ Review by Richard Bryant.

Richard Bryant’s desk-jockeying skills pay the bills, but he’d sooner be reading. More of his book reviews can be found at mishnory.wordpress.com

Resonance: A Poetry Collection
by Gary Beck
Published by Dreaming Big Publications
ISBN: 1523916400
Publication Date: 23 February 2016

A Bookish Tour of The Cotswolds

A Bookish Tour of The Cotswolds

Slow moves the hour that sucks our life,
slow drops the late wasp from the pear,
the rose tree’s thread of scent draws thin –
and snaps upon the air.

‘Field of Autumn’, Laurie Lee Selected Poems, 2014

I begin with a health warning: there is not a great deal to do in the Cotswolds. The strong farming tradition – predominately of livestock which are, in many places, granted the right to roam freely across its rolling hills – and local cider, which slows minds as well as afternoons, have carved a culture into these soft, stone hills. This culture, though vibrant and proud, holds the rough stereotype of the provincial: its people (despite housing Ecotricity, one of Europe’s largest green energy providers) have not historically been thought of as innovative. Yet, one thing for which this area is known, remembered and cherished is its beauty and its status as a geological muse.

I moved to Stroud for work last year – though small, Stroud actually boasts a lion’s share of publishing opportunities across the board, four companies that cover trade non-fiction, fiction and academic. In that time, I’ve been to The Woolpack, the favourite pub of poet and novelist Laurie Lee, just a weak-armed stone’s throw away from his grave, and I’d heard much about him – but I had never read his work.

In an effort to understand him and the area better, I set about reading Cider With Rosie and arranged a walk with a local friend, Martin, who is proud to be Stroud. We resolved to meet on the road to Slad (nearby the location of a brutal murder in the book) and walk in the footprints of the great flâneur and chat about the book and the man.

Laurie Lee was child of the cider-rich West Country and his most famous work is an autobiographic trilogy that depicted his life from boy to man. A self-confirmed wanderer, Lee was a man for whom travel was an integral part of life. He writes that, as a child, his days were filled with a rush to expand the borders of a map kept safe in his mind: his evocative description of ‘measuring that first growing year by the widening fields that were visible’ to him captures a sense of a wanderlust soul on a quest to broaden his worldview. Indeed, he famously arrived in Spain at the age of twenty, with little notion of the path ahead and less still of the path behind. Born of modest means in the town of Stroud – a quintessentially English town nestled within five valleys in the heart of the Cotswolds – he was brought to the village by a carrier’s cart, which dumped him (wrapped in a Union Jack, as the tale goes) in the long grass of these ‘slow hills’. He had a rare talent for capturing the essence of a place.

local cider, which slows minds as well as afternoons, have carved a culture into these soft, stone hills

Our journey in Lee’s footsteps was not without incident. Crossing a stile as we picked our way from Furners Farm to the other side of the valley, we came upon an almost-dry millpond where flies bothered the girls and spaniel who played there beneath the willow tree. Passing them as they swung on a tyre, our path begun to level out, rising up as it searched for the swiftest track up the hill that faced us, with Redding Wood sitting at its summit. Moving in and up through the wood I found, not for the first time, that my orienteering skills left something to be desired. For no sooner had we entered the forest – our heads by this point sun-dulled and filled with expectation at the thought of the bottled beer that clanked behind us in Martin’s rucksack – I lost my sense of direction. Swatting away needling questions from Martin that threatened to push us off course or reroute us, we struck on, me clinging to the map like Pancho Villa in the Amazon. In the words of Lee himself, ‘I was lost and didn’t know where to move’. We met a three-pronged fork in the road that stymied us momentarily, until, glancing at the route in my hand, I sent us off up the left-hand path, which would lead us up through the sun-dappled forest towards the Catswood.

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The Catswood, so Lee tells us, is the home of a two-headed sheep that apparently is unremarkable ‘except that this one was old and talked English’. City readers, and those like Martin of a scientific disposition, will no doubt find the existence of a two-headed sheep to be remarkable in and of itself, but not being learned in such things, they cannot comment. This particular two-headed sheep lives alone and can only be seen in between flashes of lightning. Classic Cotswolds. Few have ever seen the two-headed sheep – however, I once spied a similar beast (a one-headed sheep), which had no great love of storms and whom I believe to be of some nearby relation to the latter.

Leaving the forest, we plodded our lazy way up an oak-lined road, musing together on the trustworthiness of Laurie’s tales and interpretations. For us, even for Martin who grew up here, the Slad of Laurie’s memories felt like a foreign country (the sun was blistering and there was no sign of lightning or two-headed sheep, more is the pity). Though the valley has changed little in the hundred years since he first walked these fields, we had seen little of the things that we had read about through his eyes. Gone, or at least unfound, were the schoolhouse and the horse-and-traps. Gone too was the sense of camaraderie and village unity that he drew. Our Slad, with its Wi-Fi and Netflix and Amazon Prime was, it seemed, worlds away from the Slad of his memories. Yet, as those words escaped me, we turned a corner onto Knapp Lane and were greeted with a view straight through blooming foxgloves and oak trees into the talus of the valleys, and the weight of his history hit us.

Few have ever seen the two-headed sheep – however, I once spied a similar beast (a one-headed sheep), which had no great love of storms and whom I believe to be of some nearby relation to the latter.

Having begun life in a provincial town that saw change with the same disgust that it reserved for outsiders, been twice to Spain, once to fight in the Civil War, and then returned to England and the vices of London, Lee saw the world transform. In his words, his generation “saw, by chance, the end of a thousand years’ life”. Suddenly, after such sustained status quo, the world moved into overdrive. For the most part, provincial life passed from life out of mind. And when the world wasn’t getting louder, faster and smokier, it was getting more violent. The green hills and neatly separated patchwork fields were becoming a footnote to a national history that was rushing away from colonisation, into the city and towards globalisation. In light of this perceived shrinking of the planet, Lee became obsessed with the impossible recovery of innocence, and a return to a time before the rush and roar of the motorcar. Though, of course, as is captured in the closing paragraphs of the book, this innocence could not and indeed would not last, and it’s this that seems to be the central force in Laurie’s writing.

Before returning home, we stopped a few corners up the road at a stile on the hillside that hosted one of the ten poetry posts dotted around the valleys of Slad. Our spot offered a vista looking out right across Stroud to Painswick in one direction, and to Bull’s Cross (local knowledge: the site of the old hanging tree round here) and Cheltenham in the other; to our right, one of the Severn bridges was visible (no one ever knows which). Sitting there, ‘fat with time’, we finally opened the beers and chatted for a moment about the books and the people hidden there: the warring grandmothers, the eccentric uncles, the two-headed sheep, all of them.

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Lee returned to Slad in the sixties. Finished with Spain and London, it was here that he settled, becoming as much a feature of village life as was The Woolpack. By this point, sales of Cider With Rosie (which, at one point, would allegedly sell upwards of 700 a month in The Woolpack alone) had made him a minor celebrity and his passage through Spain had earned him a reputation as troubadour and travel writer extraordinaire. Now settled, with a wife and child, he was content to allow the near mythological doppleganger, which was created by the masses and informed by his interpretation of his life, license to inform his real-world person. He became as much a character as Cabbage-Stump Charlie, Crabby B and Spadge Hopkins (not to mention the nefarious sheep). To this day, stories of him are told here and around.

You’ll likely have heard before that Laurie Lee’s autobiographies blur the boundaries between fact and fiction like a British colonial carving up continents at the Admiralty. It’s true that the pictures he paints of the Slad Valley, and indeed of Spain in his later years, are of dubious verity, but what of it? Guidebooks exist of the Cotswolds and of Spain that absolve the clever travel writer of the need to point and sign for the reader. Lee’s talent was to show readers something of the people residing in these places and to impress upon them the similarities inherent in them all; for him, the people of Andalusia and Slad were inseparable. Drink cider in one, sangria in the other. Switch and repeat.

Phil Clement was raised by foxes in the Forest of Dean and currently works in academic publishing as a production editor; neither of these are as glamorous as they sound. He is a regular contributor to the New Welsh Review and Open Pen Magazine, and can be found at https://niagraphils.wordpress.com/

Photos copyright Martin Rendell. Used with permission.

Review: ‘I’ll Sell You a Dog’ by Juan Pablo Villalobos

ill-sell-you-a-dog-_rgb-300x460

“I’ll sell you a dog” sounds like a fairly innocent proposition. That is until you realise the context of the offer: 78-year-old Teo (which may or may not be his real name) is attempting to sell a recently deceased black Labrador to a butcher, thinking that the butcher will jump at the chance to cut up the dog for taco meat. This dog met its rather untimely demise at the hands of a geriatric literary book club which, after one of their outdoor meetings was disturbed by the beast, took Teo’s advice and fed the animal a stocking wrapped in meat. Teo could pretty confidently assure the book club that such a method would kill the dog, because it was a method he’d tried and tested before.

In the acknowledgements at the end of the book, Villalobos states that “the dogs are all fictional; not one was killed in the making of this novel”. This is reassuring, because not since J M Coetzee’s Disgrace have canines received such brutal treatment in literature. And like Coetzee’s book, part of the project here seems to be using casual violence against dogs to explore the history of a country which has waged political violence on its own populace.

not since J M Coetzee’s Disgrace have canines received such brutal treatment in literature

As with Villalobos’s two previous novels, I’ll Sell You A Dog is set in Mexico. The turbulence of both past and present is referenced: Teo’s grandfather was killed during the Revolution by a stray bullet. Juliette (Teo’s contemporary and grocer, with whom he’s a little in love) makes a successful living not from providing the freshest fruit and veg in town, but from arming aggrieved citizens with rotten tomatoes to use as projectiles at their various and ubiquitous protest marches.

But wait. Before we presume to start polemicising on themes, we should let Teo speak for himself. Unlike David in Disgrace, who’s the typical protagonist of a literary novel (an English professor earnestly trying to make art, in the form of an opera about Byron), Teo is a sort of anti-literary hero. He won’t join the book club that takes over the lobby in his building because he “doesn’t read novels”. The salon, led by the dictatorial and pretentious Francesca, is convinced that, far from spurning novels, Teo is actually attempting to write one. Teo takes this as a horrendous slander which he is quick to deny time and time again. When he does write, he is merely writing in his notebook, recounting the events we’re reading about: his altercations with the book club, his drinking, and the characters he meets (among them an Animal Welfare Officer with a head like a papaya, a zealous Mormon intent on saving his soul, and an undercover Maoist). Not that Teo is the Philistine he might like us to perceive him as. He’s interested in art — he was a painter before becoming a taco seller, before getting old; he often watches documentaries on Mexican artists; and he likes to read Teodoro Ardono’s Aesthetic Theory, though admittedly he reads aloud from it mainly to baffle visiting Mormons and persistent telemarketers.

Having to pass comment on a book in which the protagonist disdains anything that whiffs of pretentiousness makes a reviewer feel pretty self-conscious. Everything I’ve written up to this point feels like something Francesca would say to her book group as they make their way through In Search of Lost Time, or an excerpt from one of the lectures she gives Teo on “the literature of experience” to help him write the novel he’s determinedly not writing. But here, in his own words (or at least his author’s) is what Teo makes of his scribblings in his notebook:

What’s the meaning of it taking place? Was it a vindication of the forgotten, the disappeared, the damned, the marginal, the stray dogs? Was it a complicated way of saying art historians are revisionists? … Or, worse, was there some sort of moral lesson that meant I’d have to give up drinking and channel my compulsions towards some other activity, such as writing a novel, for instance?

And then, of course, comes the realisation that what Teo has been writing is the novel that the reader currently holds in her hands. It’s a far from unprecedented literary trick, but the twist on an old device lies in the narrator’s constant refusal that what he is writing is a novel.

The ellipsis in the above quote is my own – it hides enough words to make the quote twice as long. Which means that the text literally asks more questions than it answers. Fans of Villalobos’s bizarre but relatively plot-driven previous books might find this uncertainty somewhat of a departure. And, as if we didn’t have enough questions as it is, we can add another of our own: what is the meaning behind an author writing a novel about a man that doesn’t want to write a novel but who in the end realises that the experiences he’s been writing about in his notebook actually constitute the novel he doesn’t wish to write? Or, to put it another way, what does it mean for a novel to “be like a plate of dog meat tacos”?

In a recent interview, Villalobos says that after reaching his twentieth year away from Mexico (he lives in Barcelona) he now finds the country more difficult to understand than ever. He has to ask his friends and relatives to try explain to him what is going on. That insight we get by distancing ourselves from a place seems to have become obscuring rather than clarifying.

Like his character, Villalobos seems compelled to write. And, perhaps like his character, he’s haunted by the ghosts of artists like Manuel González Serrano, who wail that they’ve suffered more than Jesus, and demand that someone write their story. If nothing else, Villalobos tells a lot of people’s stories in this book, so maybe it doesn’t matter if, like life and dog-meat tacos, the novel is messy and rather difficult to digest.

Adam Ley-Lange lives and writes in Bath, where he is studying an MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University. Along with his partner, he co-runs The Rookery in the Bookery, a website dedicated to the review of literature in translation. You can also find Adam on Twitter @therookbookery.

I’ll Sell You a Dog
Author: Juan Pablo Villalobos
Translator: Rosalind Harvey
ISBN: 9781908276742
Published by: And Other Stories
Publication date: 4 August 2016

Submissions now open

pexels-photoSubmissions are now open for the new issue. Actually, more correctly, submissions are now open full-stop, as we have tentatively made the switch to rolling submissions. Along with that change comes a new acceptance of simultaneous submissions. This and more are discussed in a new FAQ on our submissions page.

Submissions submissions submissions. You know that feeling when you repeat a word a lot in a short space of time, and begins to lose all meaning? Turns out there’s a term for that: semantic satiation. Thank you psychologists.

Anyway, if you want your work to be considered for issue 17, the deadline is October 6th. Otherwise it will be in contention for a spot in the one after that.

— Euan

Want to join our editorial team?

6301382125_a9b1486eee_bWe publish around five percent of the submissions we receive here at Structo.

This means for each issue we are reading, voting and commenting on hundreds and hundreds of stories and poems. This quantity is tied to an ever-increasing quality of work sent in, but it it sometimes tough to get through everything in time, especially as we try our best to give each submission the time it deserves.

Here’s where you come in.

We are looking for a couple of people to join the editorial team. Your main job would be reading submissions, but if you’re interested you would be more than welcome to pitch in with other aspects of the magazine, from design work to publicity to editing. Interest and enthusiasm will be repaid in kind, especially as these are voluntary positions. If you’re a writer yourself, you will find your time spent reading submissions especially invaluable.

Anyone is welcome to apply, regardless of location, personal background, or whatever else. The more diverse we are, the stronger we are. The only thing we care about is that you genuinely care about finding great writing and putting it in front of readers. To apply, please choose a couple of stories from our back issues—one you like, and one you’re not so fond of. Write just a couple of sentences for each story, one a recommendation for publication, one a negative review. Then drop us an email with these mini-reviews and a hello.

We will be accepting applications until September the 9th. Be sure to get in touch if you have any questions.

— Euan

Photo (CC BY): Thomas Leuthard

Issue 15 now online

Issue15online

It’s been a few months since the print edition of issue 15 was published, and so as usual we have released it online to read for free over at Issuu.

This one features 11 short stories, 17 poems, a feature on cover on design, an interview with three of our favourite cover designers and another with the ex-poet laureate of North Korea Jang Jin-sung. You can find more details, as well as bonus material such as audio recordings, at the issue page.

To mark the occasion, the physical issue is currently discounted from £7 to £5, so if you want one before they sell out, now’s the time! Head here to pick up your copy.

That said, the most valuable thing you can do is read the magazine and tell a friend about Structo, as magazines like ours thrive by word of mouth. Share and enjoy.

— Euan

A Conversation with Karen Runge

Karen Runge - Seven Sins - coverKaren Runge’s book is only 16 days old when we meet up on Skype to talk about it. “It’s a screaming new born babe,” she says. “It needs a lot of attention and love and pushing.”

It’s interesting to think of Runge’s debut collection Seven Sins in these terms. If it were a baby, Seven Sins would be the sort of child to keep you awake all night, in fear that it might be coming to destroy you. This is a very dark collection of stories, and deliberately so.

Karen has always loved dark fiction. She blames her brother who used to try to torment her with tales of ghosts and ghouls – but instead instilled in her a lifelong love of horror. As a six-year-old, she was obsessed with werewolves. She wrote as soon as she was able, and says that as a child she couldn’t wait to start writing.

But there are no literal monsters in Karen’s stories; only humans. She has been criticised for calling herself a horror writer because she doesn’t write about the supernatural. But, as Karen says, there’s nothing more chilling than the horror that humans themselves are capable of. She’s wary of labels and making anything too clear cut. Good people do bad things, and bad people do good things.

“I get very annoyed reading newspaper articles where they just blanket these stories,” Karen says. “They make the villain and they make the good guy. And life isn’t like that. It’s not that simple. It really isn’t that clean cut. And it bugs me, you know. And I thought, okay, let’s think of some of the most dreadful, awful, terrible, vile things that one person can do to another, and show the reason for it in a way that other people can maybe relate to or empathise with, even if they don’t agree. I’m not saying to condone what they’re doing, but to understand a little bit better, that when people do bad things it isn’t always because they’re bad people. There’s a whole soup of stuff going on in there that might push someone to make a decision that’s really, really evil.”

“there’s nothing more chilling than the horror that humans themselves are capable of”

The first story in the collection is ‘Sweet Old Man’ which was published in Structo 10. It’s an appropriate opener, exploring as it does both youth and old age. Karen is keen to break down the assumptions that we have about old age, about disability and about women.

“I don’t like this idea of people saying, oh that sweet little old lady and that sweet little old man. Just like I don’t like the idea of people assuming that because someone is disabled they must be an absolutely lovely person because they’ve gone through this horrible experience. And likewise I’m not mad about the idea that all children are all divine little angels either. I mean, I’m not trying to say that these people are evil. I’m just saying that that’s not necessarily the case. Someone who is disabled, yes, they’ve gone through a lot. But you don’t actually know how they’ve processed that, and how it has changed them. And it isn’t always nice. Likewise, with old people, you’re looking at someone who is 80-plus years old. That’s a lot of living. That’s a lot of years to do things. And not all of them nice.”

Karen was careful in her collection not to focus on the ‘deadly seven’. Those sins have been done to death. Instead she focused on the actual brutalities that we are capable of. The collection moves through the life cycle: pregnancy, childhood, sexual awakening, child-rearing, and finally – as this is a book – exploring sin, punishment.

Karen Runge - headshot“When these deeds have been done, what happens? What is the difference between punishment and torture? I wanted to explore that. How much punishment is too much? When you’re really angry with someone, when someone has really done something really, really evil, when does your empathy kick in? And when do you have mercy? Do you have mercy? Because that in itself is a sin, you know, not having mercy.”

Karen is an admirer of Stona Fitch’s work, and contacted him (“I fanmailed the guy, like a stalker.”) to say how much she enjoyed his work. From there a correspondence grew, and eventually publication with his publishing house Concord EPress. She is absolutely effusive about the experience of working with Concord.

“I’ve said it 16 times, I’ll say it 16 thousand more. Concord Free Press: amazing what they’ve done. Just incredible. The stops that they’ve pulled for me, for this book. They’re just amazing. And they’re all volunteers. How do they find the time?”

Karen is also very proud of having been published in Structo. “A horror writer in a literary press!” And of course, as one of our Structo alumni, we are thrilled with Karen’s success.

In the immediate future, Karen is continuing to work on promoting her ‘baby’ Seven Sins. She also has a novel forthcoming with Grey Matter Press and is working on a novella.

Something of that six-year old obsessed with horror still remains. “One fine day,” Karen says. “I’d really like to write a really good werewolf story. But not now. Right now I’m too interested in the human monster.”

Seven Sins is out now via the Concord EPress website or Amazon. You can find Karen on Twitter or at her blog.

A Bookish Tour of Sydney

A bookish tour of Sydney - IMG_4178Sure, you can walk around Circular Quay, taking selfies with the famous Harbour Bridge and the Opera House. You can take your togs down to Bondi Beach and enjoy the sun and sand. You can even cuddle a koala. But why do that when you can trek around some of Sydney’s most iconic bookstores? Just make sure you bring an empty suitcase for all your new purchases.

Missing out on the title of oldest bookstore in the country by about 35 years, Dymocks opened its doors in 1879. It has since become the largest bookstore chain in Australia with over 65 outlets, but its original flagship store is without doubt its best. Occupying three floors of an Art Deco landmark building the family built in the 1920s, it is spacious, well thought-out and houses over 300,000 titles. Non-fiction upstairs, fiction and stationery in the middle, and kids books downstairs, there is even a Lonely Planet Hub, and a fantastic system of recommendations.

Just around the corner from Dymocks is a slice of heaven for fantasy and science fiction fans. Galaxy Bookshop, co-located with Abbey’s Bookshop and the Language Book Centre, has all your geeky requirements – I once found a boxset of Spaced that I had been in search of for months. Score.

If second-hand books are more your thing, Sydney is no slouch here either. Take the 426 bus towards Newtown and explore Goulds Book Arcade. Like an artefact from a world gone by, it is a two-storey maze of books, plays, comics, CDs and vinyl records – you could wander the shelves all day and not discover everything it has to offer. The shop was founded almost thirty years ago by the left-wing activist, Vietnam-protestor and badass book addict Bob Gould, and he ran the shop until his death in 2011. Now it’s operated by his daughter, Natalie. Bob estimated that he read 80,000 titles in his lifetime (don’t I feel like a slacker). Posters adorn the doors and entryway, including one spruiking a left-wing political candidate in the recent Australian election. The staff couldn’t possibly keep an inventory of the whole store, but they do know how to point you in the right direction. Alternatively you can follow the handwritten signs in each aisle.

All you really need to know is that it smells like books.

A bookish tour of Sydney - Goulds-2As I wandered through an aisle that housed biographies and Marxist books, I saw one of the two staff members re-housing a book by doing the splits across the shelves of an aisle further up. Parkour for second-hand bookselling! But all you really need to know is that it smells like books. And if there are hundreds of thousands of titles on the shelves, imagine how many more are piled up in the boxes under the stairs…

If you prefer your used books a little more orderly, a stroll up King Street will bring you to Elizabeth’s Bookstore. Charmingly small on the inside, you’ll have to squeeze past other patrons in search of a bargain, but it is wall-to-wall books with friendly staff.

Its best feature is ‘Blind Date With A Book’. Wrapped in brown paper with just a few key words to guide you, Elizabeth’s has made it impossible to choose a book by its cover in the hope of introducing readers to new adventures they wouldn’t otherwise have taken. They’ve even started an online store if you’re itching for your own blind date.

A bookish tour of Sydney - Blind Date with a BookLast but not least: Berkelouw Books is a hop, skip and a jump across to Leichhardt. The Berkelouw family have been selling books in the Netherlands and Australia for six generations. Their Leichardt store has two levels of books to explore as well as a Reading Studio for young ‘uns aged 2–8. Reading Studio was founded by the Berkelouw family and is supported by early childhood academics and teachers.

The real magic, however, is to be found at their Berkelouw Book Barn in Bendooley Estate, about an hour and a half drive from Sydney. Formerly an actual barn and boasting an inviting renovation and stone fireplace, there are tens of thousands of new, second-hand, rare and antiquarian books plus the extra special Rare Books Collection just down the path.

It doubles as a function centre and, when I attended a friend’s wedding last year, it was quite something to watch the shop close and the book shelves slide away to line the walls of the dining room. Each table at the wedding was named after a famous title (I was seated at The Great Gatsby) and being surrounded by books and love was a perfect marriage for the start of a marriage.

I’ve barely scraped the surface of what Sydney has to offer the book lover, so you best come and see for yourself.

— Alicia

Alicia Rich is a writer, cinephile and cynophile, who is waiting for her call-up to be the fifth Ghostbuster. Find her on Twitter at @AliciaRich.

Review: ‘Sitting Ducks’ by Lisa Blower

Sitting Ducks cover 500dpi 1‘If you’re not angry, you’re not listening’ is the message on the front of Sitting Ducks and it’s hard to disagree. Lisa Blower isn’t alone in using literature to explore post-industrial Britain, but where others may struggle for authenticity, her first novel convincingly captures the world of zero-hours contracts and profiteering landlords.

Stoke-on-Trent is the setting, but the city-region better known as the Potteries is much more than a backdrop, running through the book like the lettering in a stick of rock. Even the title has a double meaning as ‘duck’ is a common term of endearment in Stoke.

The demise of steel production and coal mining hit the city hard and cheap global production of pottery led to the closure of dozens of factories and the loss of tens of thousands of jobs. In the city’s heyday, Potteries-born author Arnold Bennett (Anna of the Five Towns) would take great pride in turning over plates to show his dinner guests the mark of his hometown. Teapots and dinner services are still made with love and craft in north Staffordshire, but on nothing like the scale they once were.

Lisa Blower’s protagonist Josiah ‘Totty’ Minton is one of the many men unable to fill the hole in his pride and his pockets left by the vanished pots and pits. Totty and his mother Constance are struggling to hold onto their house and their hope. Houses have changed hands for a pound in Stoke – sadly, this is not fiction – and Constance battles to hold the family together despite serious illness. Totty cannot find work and represents the generation of men left behind, as jobs migrate to warehouses and call centres. Talking to his son, Joss, he is only articulate in describing his despair. “I was born for summat and I’ll die for nowt cos this world don’t need men like me. Robot does it faster. Computer don’t need paying.”

Lisa Blower has created strong characters and given a timely voice to the legions of people struggling to regain a sense of purpose, pride and community

And men make trouble and join unions too, Totty says. Joss is saddled with the burden of parental expectation, but feels he cannot escape his upbringing despite his talent. He’s the brightest lad in the year but resents being used as a ‘poster boy’ for the downtrodden and when Totty tells him he’s different he replies: “I can’t be. I’d never fucking survive round here if I was.”

Joss has to blend in and that means acceptance of his surroundings. A line of social workers and councillors passes through the Mintons’ lives but never gets to grips with their problems. Malcolm Gandy, the predatory landlord, is always looking for properties to buy and rent and the Mintons can only watch as he snaps up the houses around them. There are no chapters in Sitting Ducks. The author opts instead for rounds, as in boxing, to capture the arguments. In Round 35, Constance describes the long list of neighbours that once surrounded her, now gone forever.

There is a stark message about what has been lost, but if this all sounds too depressing or without hope, it isn’t. Humour is always there (except perhaps for the Lib-Dems following the 2010 election). As Constance observes: “The one with the least votes has become the kingmaker. Nick Clegg could finally spin – “I’m with the band.””

Sitting Ducks author Lisa Blower

Sitting Ducks author Lisa Blower

There is tenderness and beauty too, with a wonderful comparison between the delicate handling of fine bone china and Totty as a baby boy. Constance says of Totty’s father: “Then he’d carry them away, like porcelain babes, and hand them over to the dippers who’d plunge them into love once more.”

Characters are summed up with economy and skill. There’s Rhonda, the ex-social worker, who “can fill a phone box with her chub and gristle and ginger ale skin.”

And Frank Blatch’s father: “Gunner in Korea he was, two perforated eardrums. Had no balance after that. Used to keep buckets on the stairs for he when he went up, he’d be that sick.”

Despite moving across the Midlands, Lisa Blower has retained a Bennett-like (Alan rather than Arnold this time) ear for the rhythm of Potteries speech. “She went to Australia: fat as butter, stack of kids, never writes.”

The Potteries dialect is said to be close to Old English and words such as ‘werritin’ (worrying) will have many readers heading for Google, but this isn’t a bad thing in an era of homogenised speech.

I’d like to have heard more from Joss (can he escape his surroundings?) and his imaginative sister Kirty and I can’t help thinking Totty’s temper and diminutive stature would’ve got him into deeper trouble or danger. Sitting Ducks may be too political for a minority of readers but it is the characters’ voices that come through rather than any agenda of the author. A few typos that crept in will be spotted by locals – Wedgwood incorrectly spelt with an extra ‘e’ – but Lisa Blower has created strong characters and given a timely voice to the legions of people struggling to regain a sense of purpose, pride and community.

Sitting Ducks back cover 500 dpi 1

British politicians have been scratching their heads in recent months and if they really don’t understand the frustration that exists out there, they should read this book.

Failing that they could always help the craftsmen of the Potteries and buy a plate “baked with love” instead.

— Richard

Richard Lakin trained as a chemist and has worked as a policeman on the London Underground, a farm labourer, print journalist and pharmaceutical salesman among other occupations. His short stories and travel writing have won prizes in the Daily Telegraph and Guardian newspapers in the UK and been published extensively in magazines and online. He lives in Staffordshire, England.

His blog can be found at richlakin.wordpress.com