Lucy and Todd

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The Neighborhood — Mario Vargas Llosa

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on July 2, 2018 at 6:08 pm

Speaking at Edinburgh University a few years ago, Carlos Fuentes was asked if he thought literature could alter politics. ‘Sometimes,’ he said, somewhat ruefully, ‘very slowly. Fiction is fiction and power is power’. The Neighborhood by Mario Vargas Llosa addresses that idea in several ways: could a tabloid journalist fight corruption by simply reporting a sex scandal? Could a novel that posits such an event have a political effect too?

The weak, pampered head of a Peruvian mining conglomerate, Enrique Cardenas, gets invited to a party by a foreigner he doesn’t know. The stranger plies him with champagne and the gathering quickly becomes an orgy, complete with prostitutes and cocaine. Cardenas manages to hide this misadventure from his wife. The foreign gentleman vanishes from Peru.

Two years later, Enrique is called on in his fancy office by Rolando Garro, the slimeball editor of a scabrous gossip magazine (they seem to have abounded in Peru, at least during the Fujimori regime, when this story takes place). Garro has a nice set of explicit photographs of the orgy. No way is he proposing to blackmail Cardenas, he insists – on the contrary, he’d merely like him to invest in his magazine, to help it become the biggest investigative publication in Peru. Cardenas kicks him out and the magazine immediately publishes the photographs.

Within hours all of Lima has clocked the private parts of this fairly prominent citizen. His wife orders him out, and he agonizes about the effect of the scandal on his mother. He says it will kill her, and it does, rather ridiculously and pointlessly, since we’ve never even met her.

As if all this isn’t enough, Enrique’s wife has begun an affair with the wife of his best friend, Luciano, his lawyer, an affair in which Enrique eventually participates. (There’s quite a bit of sexual satisfaction in this book, mostly, one presumes, for Mr Vargas Llosa.) It’s significant that as their troubles increase, the first place these four little rich people think of turning for help is directly to Fujimori.

This is a bold book, not least because the bad guys, or, that is, the very worst of the bad guys, are real and they’re still alive: Alberto Fujimori, the former president of Peru, and his security chief, Vladimiro Montesinos, known as ‘The Doctor’. There are very few good guys. At one point when he is starting to feel a little too sorry for himself, Cardenas remembers an appearance The Doctor made at a gathering of businessmen.

A bombastic beer belly in a blue suit with yellow shoes, he did make an impression: ‘Regarding terrorism, he talked at some length, justifying his “hard-fisted” policy with an example that made the hair of some of those present stand on end: “It doesn’t matter if twenty thousand die, including fifteen thousand innocents, if we kill five thousand terrorists.”’

Whatever Vargas Llosa’s politics now (he’s been moving slowly to the right through the course of his career), it’s obvious that he despairs for Peru, particularly in terms of its culture and the freedom to have one. There are numerous references to lambent Peruvian poems and to Felipe Pinglo, father of Peruvian ballads. One of the better-drawn characters is a partly demented old man, Juan Peineta, formerly a celebrated reciter of poetry.

Being a reciter he’s poor, and he gets inveigled into replacing a TV comic in a Three Stooges kind of act. ‘The worst thing was that in the program The Three Jokers, they even had him recite … on any pretext, just so the other two jokers could shut him up by slapping him with blows that knocked him to the floor … these were the worst moments of each program for Juan Peineta: making a laughingstock of divine poetry.’ It’s an unforgettable picture of how art and ideas are treated by totalitarians.

Juan Peineta gets beaten with rubber hoses by the security police and signs a false confession, all the while telling his torturers that they needn’t bother braining him because he’s already senile. In exchange for this favour they take him out of his hovel and install him in a nursing home with his cat.

Exposed magazine, which initiated the scandal, is now run by a very small, very tough journalist called Julieta Leguizamon. Like Rolando Garro, she is somewhat in the pocket of The Doctor. But she’s got a surprise or two up her short sleeve for him. She publishes a sizzling exposé of the murder of her predecessor and, somewhat unbelievably, gets proof of it to the judiciary, which Vargas Llosa seems to suggest is singularly protected from all this corruption he’s been describing. But within the boundaries of The Neighborhood, it works. ‘That little woman had made history without proposing to, without suspecting it.’

There’s an odd quality to this novel. The political horrors are compelling, and there’s no hint of lecturing or reams of back story. It’s not an epic, either, although it could be – Vargas Llosa tells the story of the titanic corruptions, assassinations, and disappearances of modern Peru with a small family of characters. At times they seem too evenly balanced, and without sufficient investment by the author. He could have chosen to tell the story from the point of view of any one of them – the hapless Juan Peineta would have been brilliant.

In the end, we find the two capitalist couples are up to their old tricks, having drinks on their terrace, now unbothered by kidnappings and terrorism, discussing a holiday in Miami, perhaps even moving on to a foursome from three. To our disappointment at least, the problems of Peru have been solved only in fantasy.

What a place. Now –  in reality – Fujimori has been ordered to stand trial for more murders, having been only recently pardoned on ‘humanitarian grounds’, whatever those could possibly have been. ‘Doctor’ Vladimiro Lenin Ilich Montesinos is in prison. In a proverb murmured by several characters in this book: welcome, trouble, if you come alone.


(This review appeared in the Herald on May 5, 2018)


God Save Texas — Lawrence Wright

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on July 2, 2018 at 6:03 pm

It’s Lawrence Wright’s contention that we must regard Texas as the very symptom, the future of the upcoming world we will all live in: ‘Because Texas is a part of almost everything in modern America—the South, the West, the plains, Hispanic and immigrant communities, the border, the divide between the rural areas and the cities—what happens here tends to disproportionately affect the rest of the nation.’

Well, yee-haw. At this very moment the Texas economy is overtaking that of California, and it’s not just about oil. These two monstrosities of the western US are opposed in every way. California is a complex, neurotic, highly regulated society, historically open to outsiders, whereas Texans have a horror of furriners and, at the same time, of messicans and redskins. They resist any kind of law-making that restricts the making of money. The costs of that, social and environmental, as detailed in God Save Texas, are staggering.

Just to read the chapter on Houston is mind-bending, in terms of the dirty potential of these ever-spreading cities – in their demands on electric power and infrastructure alone. Houston is only a little smaller than the entire state of Massachusetts – soon it will be the largest urban area in the US. And begging your pardon, ma’am, but it just don’t seem to have no limits.

Fracking, which Texas believes in as sure as barbecue, means that the United States is once again replete with black gold (Texas tea!). That makes it a colossal threat to us all. This is a pretty depressing side to this must-read book, but Wright handles it well, balancing Armageddon with tales of things that are good about Texas. A few things. There’s Willie Nelson for one, some of the most beautiful wildflowers in the world, a shedload of dinosaur bones, and all kinds of stuff to eat. There are also Alamo belt buckles and a whole heap of lingering Confederate racism.

The state animal of Texas could well be the grudge. Texans are super-defensive about their ‘image’. In 1952 the distinguished writer Edna Ferber published a novel about Texas: Giant. In it a Texas rancher marries a girl from Maryland. She takes an interest in her Mexican servants and gets the whites-only doctor to save an Indian baby. Over the years the rancher’s heart softens, as much as a cattleman’s can.

This novel drove Texans mad. They resented the perfectly accurate perception that they mistreated their minorities, found women invisible, birthed their laws in rooms full of cigar smoke, and hated Mexico so much that more than once in Texas history was mooted the idea of a Trumpish wall. Giant was published sixty-six years ago and they continue to fume about it, and as Lawrence Wright points out, they’re still acting that way, too.

The emptiness and aridity of Texas can be sobering. The Last Picture Show may have given you an idea, but it’s nothing compared to this: there’s a guy in this book who grew up in a tiny Texas town; his parents ran the dry-cleaning shop. There was nothing to do, nowhere to go for hundreds of miles from this place. So when the kids got really, maniacally bored, the parents gave them the keys to the shop, and they’d spend the afternoon trying on everybody’s clothes. That’s what you call rural entertainment.

Wright acknowledges that the womenfolk ain’t had much influence on the culture or politics of Texas, despite the fact that some of the most dynamic women in US history came from there: Barbara Jordan, the first black female member of the US House of Representatives from the South; Ann Richards, a shoot-from-the-hip-and-ask-questions-later feminist and the forty-fifth Governor of the state; the crusading reporters Molly Ivins and Linda Ellerbee.

To begin fixing the problems that face Texas, and therefore all of us, how about some kind of free-wheeling gender reversal? The women could make laws and deals (in Texas they’re kind of the same thing), open the borders, improve education (Texas is the worst state for this) and even introduce compassion. The men? There’s no need to understand ’em. Just ride ’n rope ’n brand ’em.

The author of The Looming Tower, a history of Al-Qaeda and 9/11 which won the Pulitzer Prize, Wright seems a political mixed bag. As a journalist he has to spend time with some very right-wing folks. He often eats breakfast with Karl Rove. He acquired a gun permit so he could enter the state capitol more easily. (Yes ma’am, you heard correct.)

The gun laws are nuts. Don’t-go-there nuts. They’re so nuts that you wonder why anybody in Texas bothers to get up in the morning. As a professional writer on terrorism, Wright professes a belief in ‘strong borders’, but he freely admits that the exigencies of the 21st century aren’t being addressed by Texas dialectic.

Now, y’all listen to this: Mr Wright is a resident of Austin, Texas, the state capital and a city with a reputation for a certain intellectuality and tolerance. He is disturbed by the commercialization and homogenization of his town: ‘One can already sniff the artifice and inauthenticity that transforms these charming environments into amusement parks for conventioneers. The very places that made Austin so hip are being demolished for the hotels and office spaces needed to accommodate the flood of tourists who have come to enjoy what no longer exists.’ Edinburgh, the eyes of Texas are upon you.




(This review appeared in the Herald on April 28, 2018)

The Necessary Angel — C. K. Stead

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on July 2, 2018 at 5:54 pm

Don’t you hate it when people come up to you at a party and say, ‘Did I mention that I’m giving a lecture at the Sorbonne, actually?’

The Sorbonne, or The Sorbonne Nouvelle as it’s now called, is merely a department of the University of Paris. It used to have some kind of intellectual glamour, if you admit such a thing possible. Now its primary use is to be drooled over by academics from other countries who think that even the mention of it will confer on them kudos and wisdom.

The characters in The Necessary Angel are connected with this place, and if you would expect them to be engaged in lofty pursuits, you’re in for a let-down. Instead of arguing for hours about philosophy and (gulp) literary theory, they’re sitting around reading The Zone of Interest by Martin Amis. Or languidly passing a copy between them, because they’re bored by it.

Max Jackson is from New Zealand, but somehow the deities of the Sorbonne allowed him admittance some decades ago and he has become a fixture. His wife Louise is a fixture, too – she’s doing an ‘edition’ of Flaubert’s Sentimental Education for the famous Bibliothèque Pléiade. This operation is something of a wonder, as Louise seems to write her annotations, send them off to the publisher, receive the proofs, see the book printed, and plan her launch party all within the space of a couple of months. French publishing must really be hot.

Max is living that portion of middle age when all he can do is think about women and try to bed them. Every woman in this novel is described in terms of her looks: she is beautiful or she is not beautiful. The shape of breasts is guessed at. Yet we know nothing about what Max looks like, except that he gets red in the face from chasing one femme up the stairs of the Opéra. (That’s the Opéra Bastille, CK Stead will have you know.) So now you can probably guess what Max looks like.

Max and Louise have two children and two apartments, because Louise has ‘banished’ Max from the family – he lives downstairs with their dog. Louise is a real snoop and in touring Max’s flat, sniffing his sheets to see if he’s having sex or just becoming a smelly middle-aged academic, she predictably finds a letter written to him by an odd English girl, Helen, a student.

Max is afraid of Helen, who’s a bit fragile, but he sleeps with her anyway, at the same time trying to construct a middle-aged obsession over his colleague Sylvie Renard. Sylvie hopes to become a fixture. Everybody in this book wants to become a fixture. Renard means fox, the author explains. Max attempts his obsession but he can’t really do anything. At all.

It’s strange that someone this vague could keep a teaching job. Scraps of terribly canonic, musty novels and poems walk across his thoughts like a nursemaid pushing a pram. He’s writing a book about Doris Lessing and VS Naipaul, which again seems a pretty lowly pursuit for the SORBONNE, especially since it’s only at the end of the novel that we get a single cogent, extended thought on literature from Max. That’s too late.

There are a few other characters. The children don’t matter – the dog might. Max has an office-mate with whom he shares coffee. Sylvie is in a relationship with a German TV producer whose only detectable trait is that he’s German.

Philip Roth once said that the reason there is so much back-stabbing, plotting and underhanded behaviour in academia is because ‘there is so little at stake’. But here, there doesn’t even seem to be that: ultra-competitiveness is mentioned, as if it’s expected, and it’s even attributed to some of the characters, but we see none of it and nothing really happens except a lot of contemplation of infidelity, and the name-checking of every important monument in the relevant arrondissements.

Sub-plot to the rescue: Louise’s family owns a small Cézanne, possibly an early version of the Etang des Soeurs, which is in the Courtauld Gallery in London, we are told sedulously, as we are told everything in this novel. The painting goes missing from Louise’s apartment after Max has taken a girl there, which he won’t admit.

Academics are always showily turning their attention from the classics to trash, and now that Louise has wrecked Flaubert for the general public she hopes that her new interest in Georges Simenon will yield her even more fame and success. She decides he’s no good, of course, but there is a brief Simenon razzle-dazzle in the faint bit of real action in this novel, police business regarding the search for the painting.

Is this meant to be the story of Max? Does he fit in? Is he smart? Is his French good enough? In the denouement the story makes a frantic rush from limp, coffee-sozzled romance into very badly written thriller. This is not a win-win situation, and it includes the dastardly trick of turning a slumbering female character into a terrorist, which male writers love to do.

As Anglo takes on Paris go, it doesn’t compare well with Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado – a master class in wit, energy and, well, Paris. In the end this is a campus novel, and like most campus novels it doesn’t work, because nobody cares what goes on in universities. Er – did I mention that it takes place at the Sorbonne? Actually?





No Live Files Remain — András Forgách

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on July 2, 2018 at 5:29 pm

(Translated from the Hungarian by Paul Olchváry)

‘In our home murderous quarrels invariably broke out over the Arabs and the Israelis, the political goals of the Americans and the Soviets, and the whole situation in the Middle East, and they lasted until veins were ready to burst, faces turned purple, throats hoarse.’ Welcome to Sunday lunch at 22, Kerek Street, Budapest. Not exactly the Good Ship Lollipop.

A few years ago, an acquaintance mentioned to the writer and artist András Forgách that he’d seen a file which suggested that his mother had been a government agent. Because even Hungary now has a degree of ‘freedom of information’, an astonished Forgách started digging in the archives of the interior ministry. What he discovered was enough to make him re-think his entire existence.

András’s father, Marcell, was nicknamed ‘Pápai’ (‘Papa’) in the bureau where he worked, for his plump good humour. But unassuming Marcell became a Hungarian operative in London, with the cover of a reporter in the state news service. A sensitive, complicated man, the role didn’t suit him. He began to suffer from paranoia, which became extreme. The family returned to Budapest. At that point the security service had the idea of operating Marcell’s wife, Bruria, in his place. She became ‘Mrs Pápai’.

Bruria was an easy-going, loquacious woman with a ferocious intelligence and a way of getting anyone to talk – about anything. Her correspondence with her handlers is disarmingly off-beat. She was also beautiful – a circumstance not lost on her masters, who considered using her as a ‘honey trap’. They gave up on the idea because they couldn’t afford it.

The Hungarian government was intensely interested in the new Jewish state. As the Forgách family had relatives and important contacts there, Bruria agreed to go on several subsidized trips, with young András. But Bruria was a fiercely devoted Hungarian socialist and patriot, and she hated Zionism; one learns quickly in these pages that if you’re going to be a spy, it’s not a great idea to be filled with venom.

‘Mrs Pápai’, writes András, ‘knew she was attempting the impossible, and yet she went. As for myself, I can’t – and I don’t want to – undertake to analyse twentieth-century Middle East developments, Palestinian-Jewish strife and/or the Israeli-Arab wars, and I don’t wish to have my say about world politics. No, here and now I wish only to understand my mother.’

This is the novel of what András found out about Bruria – and that is the correct form for dealing with this story, no doubt. It is told with amazing simplicity and a unique, almost uncanny sense of detail and humour. Forgách has the arresting habit of setting scenes by first describing the exact architectural history and nature of the buildings in which they take place.

After WWII, the security services were housed in a large building in Budapest that, with gob-smacking irony, had once been the Symbolic Grand Lodge of Hungary’s freemasons: ‘The hermae of half-naked women that had projected from the rustic keystones of the ground floor had been dismantled by careful hands – or by bombs or a well-aimed round of machine-gun fire – to make way for austere rhombuses.’ At one point the family occupy a flat which looks directly out at Buda Castle, and Forgách’s description of its dilapidated state and the statuary surrounding it is masterfully satiric.

The novel is moving and intimate – it will remind you at times of Günter Grass and perhaps the half-hidden relationships that were often the subjects of Robert Pinget. András, quite young at the time of his mother’s clandestine activities, has to re-calculate over and over what absolutely everything meant in his childhood – was a cocktail party simply a party? Or was it a group of people his mother brought together for the purposes of observation and provocation? Perhaps we could all ask ourselves that one.

Families are families, even if they are confidential agents, though the Forgáchs were a little less fortunate than some in their decay. András’s father lost his mind and also acquired Parkinson’s; Bruria ultimately couldn’t contain herself about the relations between Hungary and Israel and told the spooks she was quitting. She had grief of many kinds to contend with in her last couple of years.

One of the dossiers András reads toward the end ‘perfectly sums up that schizophrenic situation, that labyrinth without an exit, in which Mr Pápai and Mrs Pápai, my father and my mother, existed and floundered here and in the big wide world.’ This is a dark, eye-popping, must-read love letter – to lots of vanished things.


(This review appeared in the Herald on April 13, 2018)