Monday, 7 August 2017

Book Review - The Road by Cormac McCarthy

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

London: Picador, 2007              ISBN 9780330513005

Those few who have followed my reviews will know that I rate Cormac McCarthy's novel Blood Meridian very highly: so highly in fact that I have never attempted any of his other books for fear of being let down. Thankfully, while The Road is in many ways a very different book to Blood Meridian, it in no way diminishes my view of McCarthy as a writer.

McCarthy has great power as a descriptive writer; whereas Blood Meridian revelled in an almost baroque descriptiveness, The Road is a model of concise writing, paring words down to the essential. Which of course reflects what the protagonists are doing: cutting life back to its essentials. While the Father fervently wants to believe that what they are doing is not mere existence, his son is not so sure. As for the reader, we are left in a state of suspense - will they find a promised land? What will life become? And of course the big one - what really happened to the World?

McCarthy, never one to telegraph his intentions in a book, leaves the reader to make up their own mind on many of these questions. Much as in Blood Meridian with the character of the Kid, we don't know what drives the Father in The Road: does he really believe in a better future, or is he just trying to outrun death? Or is he a coward? The description of how his wife decides to suicide can be read several ways... certainly God seems to have deserted humanity, even though the Father is still invoking him at the end. In fact, like all good literature, The Road not only reflects the reader's thoughts, it flings them back into your face, making you question your own beliefs.

The horror of the Father and Son's predicament dawns slowly; it is by stages that we discover that they are not in fact travelling towards a safer place, and that in fact the whole World is destroyed. We see how the cruelty it takes to survive in such situations, while driving those with a predilection to evil further down that path, also begins to corrupt even "the good guys": the Son being the moral compass that the Father tries to, but can't, ignore - and in fact needs - to stay human. He sees his Son as the special one, and indeed he might be, as the Son seems throughout the book to be the only person who does keep his human-ness the whole time. Yet even he at stages seems to wish for death. The question must be asked what is the point of surviving in such a World?

If the expectation is that McCarthy will provide us with a point, disappointment will be all that the reader will harvest. Perhaps one thing McCarthy does give us is a picture of the indomitable will of humans to go on: that no trial is too much, at least for some, even if there seems to be no hope, and no adversary will not be faced when survival is at stake. Like Blood Meridian, there is much to ponder in this work.

I briefly touched on the style of the book at the beginning of this review and will return to it now. The book is written in many (over a hundred) small vignettes, mostly describing what the Father and Son are doing on their journey. The writing is spare, without flourish for the most part - just the facts. That the facts are so depressing makes the small wins - like finding a can of Coke in an upended vending machine - that much more of a highlight. The early "history" of what happened after the catastrophe (nuclear war? Hinted at but not confirmed) leads the reader to expect a constant battle with evil: but while it is an ever-present fear (and a very occasional reality), it is cold and hunger that are the real enemies, in a landscape where most houses are destroyed, food looted, and countryside barren.

The spare writing style works well in a book where dialogue mostly consists of brief exchanges between Father and Son. The style is also a page turner. I started this book on a Friday night after work and finished it three hours later in a single sitting. I couldn't even speak for the next half-hour, such was its effect on me. I will have to read it again: the spell it casts is different to Blood Meridian but just as strong. I have no idea how they managed to turn this book into a film.

Is this a bleak book, a book with a depressing view of the human race? I'm not so sure of that, but I am sure it's a classic.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Book Review - Street fight in Naples by Peter Robb

Street fight in Naples : a book of art and insurrection by Peter Robb

Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2010             ISBN 9781741754124

Peter Robb is a unique voice in Australian letters. From his first book Midnight in Sicily, he has delved into odd corners of the murkier side of human nature by looking at art, food, and the other vices that beset us. From the title it's obvious that this work's focus is that Queen of Cities, Naples. Robb lived there for many years although it was only after he returned to his native country that he could write this book, which in true Robb fashion combines his own memories with snippets of history and speculation to create a great work of literature.

As it is for the rest of Robb's oeuvre, it is hard to briefly describe this book . A type of history, mostly of Spanish Naples; a critique of Neapolitan artists both famous and less so; with the climax a retelling of the rebellion led by Masaniello in 1647. The book is much more than this, all anchored by Robb's reflections on his own experiences from his time there.

What Robb is really writing about is human nature, and the character of the Neapolitans themselves: ever-adaptable; proud; foolish; and violent. Robb describes how the painters of the seventeenth century not only were daring in their use of the poor as subjects for their religious paintings, but that they also resorted to threats, violence and perhaps even murder to ensure that no outsiders came in and took commissions away from them and their studios.

The natural beauty of the city and its surrounds barely hides the squalor of many of its inhabitant's existence, something that has not changed for millennia. Another constant is outside control of the city: Greeks, Romans, Normans, Spanish, French have lorded it over the city and surrounds, and even the Italian State at times is seen as an occupying power. Naples has rarely been master of its own destiny, except for brief periods of rebellion, which were mostly crushed within a short period of their outbreak.

Robb however is uninterested in giving the reader a mere narrative history. As is often the case in his work, he explains by allusion and side-tracks: we may learn the history of fishing in the Bay of Naples through his description of a painting of the marketplace, or the legend of the founding of the city via his description of a sweaty train journey to a popular beach. The reader can never be sure in Robb's work just where he's leading, or what might be imparted by the end of the book.

It is this style of exposition, and the exact choice of words used to "expose" (I use the word deliberately), that makes Robb a unique writer. While I love his work (even his lighter-weight magazine pieces are great), I can readily understand why some people may find his work wordy, obtuse and almost deliberately obscure.

I think that, to Robb, the way he layers these stories and snippets is how he feels he can get to the real kernel of what Naples is, now and 350 years ago. The way he juxtaposes his subjects shows how much has stayed the same even in the midst of revolutionary change. The reader's mind is drawn into this web of stories - as labyrinthine as the streets of Naples themselves - and is never sure whether what is being discussed is an historical event or a painting; something that happened in 1400, 1647, or 1980. But it doesn't matter, as it is one story, of a city and that city's people.

There is no doubt that Robb has a deep and abiding love for Naples, even as he shows us the corruption and venality of those who have governed it. He also has a deep respect and affection for the workers and peasants, even as he acknowledges their vices and foolishness.

Like Midnight in Sicily and A Death in Brazil, Street fight in Naples is a work of massive craftsmanship, created by a unique mind.

This rather pedestrian review does it no justice whatsoever.

Highly Recommended

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell