Harvill Secker

‘Shall I scrub your back for you?” the monkey asked ... He had the clear, alluring voice of a doo-wop baritone. Not at all what you would expect.’ The eight short stories in First Person Singular are exactly what a reader has come to expect from Haruki Murakami, a writer with a penchant for neo-surrealism. The parabolic tales in this collection explore the familiar tropes and motifs of his oeuvre, including loneliness, outsiderness, chance encounters, music (classical, jazz and the Beatles), and memories. While Murakami might not be breaking new ground here, it is still a magical experience to return to his whimsical, eccentric, and enigmatic reimagining of Japan.

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These writer’s scribblings, handsomely reproduced, cover two distinct periods in Murray Bail’s life: London from 1970 to 1974; and Sydney from 1988 to 2003. The notebooks from the London period, which represent roughly two-thirds of this book, were previously published as Longhand: A Writer’s Notebook (1989). While readers may find some interest in comparing the formative and the mature writer, the older Bail’s reflections on ageing and death represent the most consistently penetrating writing in Notebooks.

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How does consciousness, the feeling of what happens, emerge from the object that Tim Parks describes in this engaging book as ‘a gruesome pinkish grey, vaguely intestinal lump’? Is mind identical with brain, is it secreted by it in some fashion, or does it, as some philosophers suggest, mysteriously ‘supervene’ on ...

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A smattering of cultural theory is helpful when reading Gail Jones. The academic bones of her writing always show through the thin padding of her concept-driven stories: deconstructed photography in Sixty Lights (2005), technology and intimacy entwined in Dreams of Speaking (2006). It is more than disconcerting when the narrator of Jones’s third novel, Sorry, starts to interrogate the text with the aplomb of a Cultural Studies postgraduate, especially as the said narrator, Perdita, is a twelve-year-old girl living in Perth, in 1942, curled up in bed with a copy of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. ‘Since the first reader is the author,’ Perdita thinks to herself, ‘might there be a channel, somehow, between author and reader, an indefinable intimacy, a secret pact? There are always moments, reading a novel, in which one recognises oneself, or comes across a described detail especially and personally redolent; might there be in this covert world, yet another zone of connection?’

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The Child of an Ancient People by Anouar Benmalek (translated by Andrew Riemer)

by
March 2004, no. 259

At once extravagant and tightly wrapped, this novel reinforces the view that historical fiction says as much about the present and the future as it does about the past. At the level of history proper, Anouar Benmalek’s vision unites three continents that, in the second half of the nineteenth century, are subject to the depredations of European colonialism and domestic tyranny. At the human level, his fiction is preoccupied with the bodily functions and basic needs of survival: things that never change. The broad, impersonal sweep of world history is made up of the infinitesimally small transactions of the primal scene: copulating, defecating, vomiting, bleeding, all driven by the elemental forces of fear and desire, violence and conscience.

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