Tyll by Daniel Kehlmann (translated by Ross Benjamin) – A Book Review

Daniel Kehlmann and Ross Benjamin have together created an updated version of the tales of Tyll Ulenspiegel, trickster. There is a long line of retellings of this man’s story. He first appeared in print in a pamphlet published in 1515 which has Tyll born in Brunswick in the 1300s and dying of the plague in 1350.

Since his original appearance this impish man and his tales have been revamped in many contexts. In Kehlmann’s Tyll, Tyll’s life and times have been transposed to the Holy Roman Empire’s Thirty Years War (1618 to 1648) one of the most brutal and longest wars in history. Tyll is the magic thread connecting a miscellany of stories and characters, reaching from the late English Reformation and Guy Fawkes, through to the death of King Gustav Adolf of Sweden.

As a young boy Tyll leaves his home village somewhere south of Mölln Schleswig-Holstein, with his friend Nele. For many years the two of them travel the length and breadth of the Holy Roman Empire taking up with vagabonds and minstrels, learning many tricks along the way. Tyll juggles, sings, tightrope walks and dances with Nele shocking their audiences, entertaining and manipulating them and never staying around for very long. As they travel across devastated lands they bear witness to the horror and fragility of life in a world where war defines life and death, and everything in between hobbles along in grim parade. We traverse a world of terrifying primitiveness, despite the trappings of educated religious authorities. It becomes quite clear that fear and how to wield it, is the currency of the times.

Tyll Ulenspiegel (Owl Mirror) is all of us, our glories and our not-so-glories, our ambitions, wants, all of it including our deviousnesses and dishonesties. Kehlmann’s Tyll is part philosopher, part scholar, always moving never certain, never fixed, fluid like the mill stream in which he got his second baptism and nearly drowned as a boy. Kehlmann links Tyll, Nene and multiple other characters to a series of secondary stories that mostly work. Through these vignettes we learn more, too much even, about the Thirty Years War and its destruction of so many lives.

Ross Benjamin’s translation is excellent, capturing the rhythm and nuances of the original German. His English version is lyrical and evokative of the grim reality of times when there is rarely enough to eat or somewhere safe to rest. Roving labourers, be they mercenaries or mill hands, are as much victims of their times as the famers and villagers trying to grub a living surrounded by danger and threat. No one is safe. Disease and superstition are rampant and as Tyll and his various companions move across the landscape, Kehlmann shows us just how deadly even a tiny dose of either can be. Interweaving folklore, myth and religion constantly juxtaposes the most basic questions of life (gas-food-lodging) with our need for spiritual comfort, enlightment and protection. Ignorance and Christianity are as much enemies as friends and the fears of Protestants for and of their Catholic breathren weaves throughout the texts. Like Tyll on his tightrope, they are another reminder of the precariousness of existence both in life and afterwards. Fear of what God and the devil might do to you is constantly balanced with fear of what your fellow man might do to you. This tension runs through the narrative and is evident in most of the digressions into different characters and their stories.

The need to rationalise is with us still, as are the motivations of many of these individuals, from wanting to help and heal, through to wanting power and legacy. There is always a risk that deliberate motivations and rationales will lead to corruption. Destruction and death is obviously a powerful a theme in this book, but neither is constrained to the times of the Thirty Years War. We come to understand that death is just another state or phase of existence. In the seventeenth century that state of light or dark was not necessarily so dreadful. At least not when compared to existing in a world shaped by war, want, disease, loss and futility, spells and relics. Read Tyll  and feel the slippery touch of those times.

XX by Rian Hughes – a Book Review

I don’t generally read a science fiction, so reviewing Rian Hughes’ XX in the context of its genre is impossible for me: I can’t point out clever references or offer witty insights. I wasn’t much looking forward to reading XX because tackling a 977 page first novel isn’t something to undertake lightly, sci fi or not.

Trepidations aside I did really enjoy this book. It helps that technology plays a big part and although there were a few holes, for the most part the technical stuff’s convincing. More significantly this book exploits everything it’s possible to do with digital technology for page layout, composition and printing. Hughes uses typography and exploits the precision of inkjet digital printing to convey the characters’ experiences, often in ways not possible in the pre-digital imaging age. 

The eponymous XX is one of three Digital Memetic Entities, DMEns created online but connected to a wider world through their digital iterations in digital channels. XX’s colleagues are Girl 21 and the 19th Count, both of whom play bigger parts in the story than XX. The DMEns are characters borne of ideas, ideas that drove the last three centuries and they have agency. The DMEns are made tangible by the genius of a computer geek working on AI applications for digital games. Jack and his colleagues are amongst a handful of people able to understand an obscure transmission coming from outer space. The Signal, picked up as sound waves, is actually a huge binary entity. Its digitally defined parameters are referred to as the Grid, wherein numerous lost civilisations and creatures are embedded and transported. The Signal’s connection to a curious crash landing on the dark side of the moon gradually becomes apparent and through the subsequent investigation, we meet Dana an astronaut who becomes intimately entwined with the Grid, its Shepherds and the DMEns. That much I got. I think.

It’s tempting when hefting XX onto your well-muscled lap or sturdy table to assume that the book is overwritten, but this isn’t the case. The writing is sharp, tight, pacy even, but the narrative is almost overwhelmed with creative possibly fictitious support material. Unexpectedly the diversity and volume of evidence for the main premise (still trying to work that one out) actually does help drive the narrative.

The lists, internet references et al provide necessary context for some of the themes addressed. These are many and the most important one isn’t obvious until the very end of the book. Symbols are stories. Words, letters, graphics and glyphs of all kinds, binary and digital, are messengers, possibly sentient beings. Symbols and digital algorithms shape perceptions, facts, ideas, truth or lies, reality. Broadcast datastream signals can provide common voice, or have unique and granular meanings. Examples used in XX range from BBC News websites and newspaper clippings through to Wikipedia entries and extracts from classified meeting transcripts. Unfortunately all voices in the various background stuff sound the same, like Jack, so it’s hard to have the patience to read these sections. Maybe this is ok in a sci-fi novel? 

Excess detail such as the frame by frame analysis of the Daedelus footage images, and numerous coding examples are definitely annoying to read. But they demonstrate that meaning depends on how a description, or symbol, is interpreted and the response to that interpretation, whatever the medium. Meaning is ascribed by the receiver of the data. Ideas are not fixed or immutable.

So we understand that this story is well written and pacy, but is it just too much? Possibly, except as the book proceeds and the end is in sight, the excess background experiences take on more meaning and relevance. The long descriptions can be a drag and undermine the slow moving drama, but at around the last third of the book the pace picks up. What is basically a pedestrian story gussied up in philosophical posturing, then becomes exciting and compelling.

Certainly there are too many digressive rambles and rants to hold many readers’ attention. But XX is part sci-fi, part graphic story and part philosophical treatise. Through the demonstration of the value of recorded history, from pictograms and letters through to data archives, we appreciate the evolution of ideas, their persistence and power. We are reminded that to counter a bad idea you need to have a better one. The rendition of ideas in words, page design, images and type pushes typographic composition beyond anything seen in a first novel, or indeed any other. XX exploits digital prepress and production technologies to amplify the expression of page design and composition. 

Things get much more exciting as XX approaches its conclusion, despite the exhaustion of the preceding breezeblock of pages. The author may be bludgeoning reader with content to give the experience of what the universe is undergoing. The heavy use of typography and layout add another dimension to our ideas of what a novel should look like. It’s wonderful to see technology add such a fabulous new creative dimension to our concept of the book. XX is an extraordinary achievement and quite unprecedented.

Deepa Anappara’s Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line – A Book Review

It’s rare that a novel, especially a first novel, transports the reader so completely and so persistently into another space. Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara is set in a large but unspecified Indian city. Young children have started to disappear from a local basti, a slum. The eponymous Djinn Patrol is a small group of children led by nine year old Jai, a little boy who along with his friends lives in the basti. Obsessed with television cop programmes and keen to become a detective, Jai decides to investigate. He co-opts his friend Pari who is much brighter and much more diligent than Jai. Faiz has a job as well as going to school and is convinced that Djinns are to blame for the disappearances.

Jai’s story, and that of his world, is woven into the story of the team’s efforts to track down the killer. They look for clues, interview witnesses and catalogue their evidence. They don’t get very far but in their many journeys, including to the city centre on the purple train line, we are immersed in the world they inhabit. We learn bits of Hindi on the way, like basti and daru, which is some sort of booze. We also learn about Indian food, and about managing day to day living in extreme poverty. Jai, his family and those of his friends and neighbour live the same routines as everyone else: food, transportation, home, family. But they do it without much in the way of cash or mod cons. And they are at the sharp end of most peoples’ prejudices including those of their neighbours.

Through her characters, the author deftly reminds us of some basic truths people in general and about modern India in particular. At his job as a tea-shop boy, one Sunday Jai observes “If Pari were to see me now, she would say this is why India will never be world class like America or England. In those countries, it’s illegal to make children work.” There are many such uncomfortable reminders in this book.

Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line offers an original perspective on modern India, that of a lowcaste little boy, aspirational and ambitious but easily distracted. He and his friends and family take in stride the country’s casual racism and class divisions, evident pretty much everywhere. We see the aloof disregard the wealthy “hifi” people have for the poor people who serve them. We see the callousness and priviledge, and the complete lack of respect spoilt wealthy people can have for others beyond their social class, beneath their caste. We come to understand that these hifi types simply don’t see them as people. One would like to think the hifi types know better, because they should, but they mostly don’t. Their unfeeling disregard is shocking, anachronistic in people who pride themselves on the advances India has made over the last 70 years. That a mother daren’t ask for time off to searching for her missing child, because she could lose her job is as sobering as it is distressing.

The juxtaposition of wealth and poverty, between the hifis behind their high walls and the slum-dwellers with no running water and shared bathhouses is an ugly reminder of how easy it is for people to be blind to the world around them, to simply not notice. That applies not just to broken down buildings and running drains in Jai’s basti, but also to domestic violence, child abuse and kidnapping and corruption, especially in the police and local government. Too easily it can all become quotidien, and those priviledged enough to push for change, immune so they do nothing.

Anappara’s array of characters, savoury and not so savoury, are presented with sympathy and sensitivity. Main characters have back stories to help us understand how they are shaped, showing their multiple sides. Truly evil characters have no shape other than evilness. Anappara’s heroes and antiheroes are vulnerable and inconsistent, and as we learn to get to know them we are encouraged to want to know them more, even the unpleasant ones. Many are uncertain and changeable. Even Jai struggles with self-doubt, at one point telling Pari “we can’t be detectives anymore. What can we track? We done even know the Muslim children’s names”. Divisions between Hindus and Muslims in modern India clearly run deep, even amongst children.

Like India this story is one of contrasts, from the blend of kindness and cruelty of Mental towards his gang of child thieves, through to Jai’s assessment late in the book that “our basti has become famous and the opposite of famous”. The author keeps her various narrators’ voices clearly distinct, from Jai whose nine year old perspective remains that of a child throughout, to the young schoolboy thug, Quarter. He is one of Jai’s suspects but is really not so different from the younger boys he terrorises. But Quarter’s advantages are enough to give him power over other children, as Jai explains: “His father is the pradhan [leader] of our basti and a member of the Hindu Samaj, a shouty party that hates Muslims. We hardly ever see the pradhan anymore because he has bought a hifi flat and only meets hifi people.”

Jai makes many such observations throughout this book and the reader is right there with him. We share Jai’s life and his world: “For safekeeping his father wrapped the ironed clothes in clean but worn bedsheets.” Jai’s father is a press-wallah, anxious that changing times in his neighbourhood will soon make him redundant. 

Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line is witty, sensitively observed, a story of hideous crimes and of the ordinariness of innocence. Jai and his friends are aware of their world and its limitations but they are unconcerned. Their world is school, avoiding getting into trouble, exploring and having adventures. In this they are the same as children everywhere. Their difference is that they live in a world where child abduction and kidnapping, murder and police corruption are too readily ignored. But such darkness does not have to be ignored and that it is, should be India’s shame.

Salman Rushdie’s Quichotte – a Review

Years ago I read pretty much all of Vladimir Nabokov’s novels and short stories. Stray words and phrases from his work have stayed with me and might be why reading Salman Rushdie’s Quichotte reminded me of those years. 

There are plenty of references in Quichotte to chew on, from Nabokov, Shakespeare and Homer to US soap operatsIt’s a multilayered story blurring various narrators’ identities and the boundaries between parallel and increasingly porous stories.

Quichotte starts off as a retake on Cervantes’ 1605 story of Don Quixote, sometimes considered the world’s first novel. Don Quixote is a man of uncertain mental health who has visions and takes to the road with his squire, Sancho. But Don Quixote’s tale is just a starting point for a more complex story in Quichotte. The reinvented modern Don Quixote is Ismail Smile (I smile, I smile), an erudite old Indian American who lives in his car and motel rooms, and is obsessed with junk television. Highly educated and a little unhinged, Ismail Smile works as a salesman until his cousin at Smile Pharmaceuticals Inc fires him. Ismail Smile now has the opportunity to woo and win the heart of Salma R. a talkshow host celebrated as Oprah 2.0.

Advance warning of this story’s slipperiness, the uncertainty of identity, belonging, reality, comes early in the book. Ismail Smile says: “Perhaps this story is a metamorphosed version of his own?”. He wonders if “the writer’s tale was the altered version of his history”. I don’t know much about Salman Rushdie, but would bet that there’s a lot of him in Quichotte. Most of the characters are Indian with some connection to Bombay, so Quichotte might be an elaborate expression of the author’s identity as man and writer, of reality and fiction’s confused subjectiveness. With this in mind I was tempted to learn more about Salman Rushdie and his achievements, but resisted. I’m reviewing the book after all, not the author.

Like the original Don Quixote, or at least the bit of Rushdie’s novel that nods to it, Quichotte is a parody of the nature of chivalry and love. In both stories the hero takes to the road in pursuit of love. The original has a squire called Sancho Panza, and in Quichotte Ismail Smile imagines into being a son called Sancho. But Ismail Smile and Sancho are themselves fictions, creations of a crime novelist whose pen name is Sam du Champs. Author, the writer known as Sam DuChamp, is referred to as Brother by his sister whom he calls Sister. Brother has a Wife, now ex-Wife and Sister is married to a crossdressing man. They call each other Jack and their child Daughter. Ismail also has a sister whom he calls the Human Trampoline, for unconvincing reasons. It’s a reference to Paul Simon’s Graceland, the quintessential roadtrip album. 

Author’s Son has disappeared as Sancho has appeared. Sancho wavers from real to unreal throughout the story until he reaches the end of his personal quest. Author and Son are reunited by a secret agent who goes by many names, one of which is Kyle, one of the Men in Black. This movie is about thwarting alien invasions and preventing the destruction of the planet, which is what appears to happen as the book progresses. The secret agent uses various last names. Oshima, Kagemusha, Mizoguchi and Makioka. The first three are Japanese film directors and Makioka might be from the Makioka Sisters a classic Japanese novel.

Nothing is what it seems as these multiple narratives overlap and converge. As in many Nabokov stories names are signals of intent, hints for how to read the narrative. Anderson Thayer, Salma R.’s assistant and bed buddy, might be named after the American painter Handerson Thayer. He painted lots of women and often gave them angel wings. Author Sam duChamps calls his son Son and Son calls himself Marcel DuChamp. Author’s primary character is alternately Quichotte and Ismail Smile. Fake names abound but only Sancho is uniquely referred to as Sancho (I think). Together with Sancho, Ismail Smile visits a town in New Jersey called Berenger. The name echoes Saunière Berenger the fraudulent nineteenth century priest whose story begat the Da Vinci Code. This lie or truth spawned multiple fictions in print and on screen. Ismail Smile and Sancho may or may not have visited Berenger but if they did, they found humans turned into Mastodons and behaving like idiots. Mastodons look like elephants, the symbol of Republican Party, and Trump supporters follow his lead.

As I started to wonder how much of this evaluation was true or prompted imaginings in my head, I started to feel buried and wonder if Quichotte is deliberately overwritten. This is especially true in the book’s early stages where the style is uncertain, repetitious and riddled with confusing and wearying lists. But it’s surely deliberate, a device to mimic a stranger’s encounters with the unfamiliar, of cultural anxieties. Rushdie hints at this often though I think he gets it wrong with Freddie Mercury. Of Author (Sam du Champs) he says: “Yes, the name on the books veiled his ethnic identity, just as Freddie Mercury veiled the Parsi Indian singer Farrokh Bulsara. This was not because the Queen front man was ashamed of his race but because he did not want to be prejudged, did not want to be ghettoed inside an ethnic-music pigeonhole surrounded by the bars of white attitudes.” Freddie Mercury was never in danger of being pigeonholed. He chose his new persona to step away from his Parsi identity towards a persona that was closer to his own reality: music, lots of wild sex and global possibly even interplanetary adulation.  

But that’s a quibble. Quichotte’s multiple narrators, none of them reliable, provide possible autobiographical expositions, possible documentations of stuff in Rushdie’s head and memory, what moulded him. The Quichotte narrators show us how stories, our own and others, shape us whether we like or can admit it, or not. And the movie and music references are key to that. Sancho’s reference to slavery from Randy Newman’s Sail Away: “sailed away and crossed the mighty ocean into Charleston Bay” is swiftly followed by Disney lines from Pinnochio: “got no strings on me”. When Ismail and Sancho approach New York city Sancho runs lines in his head from Roy Orbison’s Pretty Woman. They are in New York to find Ismail Smile’s love, not Sancho’s. Real or no?

The choice of film titles reflects the author’s interests, experiences, or perhaps that’s just what he wants us to think. The list is long but pretty much all of the movies referenced involve a journey, spiritual, personal or literal, from Breakfast at Tiffany’s through to the Lord of the Rings. But we are told throughout this book not to trust or believe anything anyone says, as when Sancho says to his father “… you’re maybe someone else entirely” . It’s just another means of layering untruths which may be why the Pinocchio references get stronger and more frequent as the book progresses. The lying puppet aided by Jiminy Cricket and the Blue Fairy becomes a real boy and lives happily ever after. Sancho has a different fate. 

It’s all quite entangled, the nature of creation and existence, the real and the unreal, the television story and the modern American story of opioid abuse, ingrained racism, corporate corruption, deep state manoeuvres and travel in time and space. And throughout there’s the undercurrent of recast identity for nonwhites in the USA, right down to quoting Creedence Clearwater Revival: “those old cotton fields back home”. This band evolved from an earlier group called the Golliwogs. 

As this book progresses, following Ismail Smile and Sancho through the seven valleys (the Seven Valleys is a Persian poem, but the valleys are not the same), it shifts into something between a philosophical treatise and a representation of creative struggle, illustrated by music, television and film references. Sancho reminds us that “Even my birth, my personal origin story, had its roots in fantasy. Is that who I am? A close encounter of the what is it kind? Yeah. I know. Third. Where’s my mother ship?” (Close Encounters).

The musical references suggest subjective multiple perceptions and possibilities, uncertain interpretations, finding voice, who knows. Lyrics  challenge the nature of belief and faith as in “will you still love me tomorrow?” by the Shirelles. In Nabokov’s book Look at the Harlequins! he creates a fictional autobiography to show how fiction reflects numerous realities in the author’s mind. Lies and lots of them tangled up with unreal events and people are what fiction’s all about. Fiction’s not truth. In Quichotte when Salma R. ponders her life, she observes that “a Russian writer had said, the one that preceded our birth, ‘the cradle rocks above an abyss,’ and ‘heading for (at some forty-five hundred heartbeats an hour)’”. In Nabokov’s autobiography, Speak Memory, he tells us “the cradle rocks above the abyss and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for (at some forty-five hundred heartbeats an hour). Rushdie omits Leonard Cohen’s lovely line: “there is a crack in everything, That’s how the light gets in” opting for Shakespeare’s sonnet XXX when Salma R. is striving to remember her childhood: “I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought”. The next bit says And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:

You mightn’t like this book and feel your time’s getting wasted in the early pages. I felt that way, but as the various stories unfolded I found myself wanting it to go on longer. As we approach the end of Quichotte time is indeed wasting. The world around the various narratives melts. Celluloid burning into light when the film reel gets stuck. As the book reaches its conclusion the cartoon and the real expand and contract, and more characters from Pinocchio come into the picture. The Blue Fairy warns Sancho not to pursue his quest then changes her mind when Sancho disagrees. Salvation or redemption?

And so it goes on. It is far beyond me to compress much more into a simple book review, but I am sure that there is a whole story in the selection of film and television and song references in Quichotte from the Beatles to Springsteen. The films dominate and here are a few in the order in which they appear in the book: the World According to Garp, Blazing Saddles, Psycho, Ghostbusters, the Wizard of Oz, the Man with No Name, Silence of the Lambs, The OK Corrall, The Godfather, When Harry Met Sally, Paris Texas, To Catch a Thief, Men in Black, Bonnie & Clyde, Who Killed Roger Rabbit. See if you can find them and let me know which ones I have missed, because even these choices might be shorthand hints for the narratives.

This is all a very long way from Nabokov, Homer and Shakespeare, and that’s why Quichotte is so very well worth the read and brainsweat. The book ends with what might be a touching reference to a long forgotten television soap opera. It’s about a fictitious hospital in Boston nicknamed St Elsewhere. In the final episode a little boy shakes a snow globe and we understand that the stories in the whole of St Elsewhere’s 137 episodes happened in his imagination. Quichotte ends with a similar reference: “That other world, which he now understood to be the one he himself had made, was a miniature universe, perhaps captured under a glass dome — a snow globe”.