March 30th, 2013


March Books 14) The Castle, by Franz Kafka

Nirgends noch hatte K. Amt und Leben so verflochten gesehen wie hier, so verflochten, daß es manchmal scheinen konnte, Amt und Leben hätten ihre Plätze gewechselt.
Nowhere else had K. ever seen one's official position and one's life so intertwined as they were here, so intertwined that it sometimes seemed as though office and life had switched places.
Kafka's unfinished novel, published in contravention of his dying wishes, is generally known as The Castle in English, and indeed that is the sense in which the word Schloß is generally used in the text. But Schloß also means "lock", and it is close to Schluß which means "end" or "closure". In one of Agatha Christies barmy later novels, the hero reflects, "’What a nice word it is. A Schloss. So solid-sounding." These are the nuances one loses in translation. (Note also how Amt is translated two different ways in the quote above, neither very graceful.) Unfortunately I am not courageous enough to tackle it in the original.

The book itself was different from my expectations. I had somehow imagined a story of crushing omnipresent bureaucracy; but in fact it's a tale of a society under constant threat from an oppressive authority which is distant and largely absent, and encountered only in baffling and frustrating ways; but its effect on the villagers is to put everyone on edge and cause ordinary relationships to be distorted, men and women both desperate to prove that they don't care for authority and also conscious that they must buckle to it. It's a shame that it isn't finished, but we know where it is going and where it has been - it finishes in mid-sentence, "...mühselig sprach sie, man hatte Mühe sie zu verstehen, aber was sie sagte" - "...she spoke with difficulty, it was hard to understand her, but what she said" - and there it ends.

March Books 15) What's Up With Catalonia?, translated and edited by Liz Castro

Catalonia, our country, is a nation. A nation that, in order to maintain its identity and to move forward, needs tools of state. This nation has existed for many centuries. It has its own identity, culture, and language, and its own institutions. Catalonia wants to follow, and indeed must be allowed to follow, its own path.
(Artur Mas i Gavarro, President of Catalonia, in the Prologue)
This is a digestible book of 35 essays about Catalonia, all written at the end of last year, which is being widely distributed by sympathisers of the Catalan cause. The two key grievances which come up again and again are the question of fiscal imbalance, where Catalonia feels that it is subsidising the manifestly unsuccessful policies of the central Spanish state, over which is has little say and for which it gets little in return; and the language issue - using Catalan in public could get you arrested not very long ago, and Madrid does little to reassure Catalan concerns on this point. There are two pieces about Europe, a snapshot of Brussels opinion by a leading MEP, and a brief but powerful piece by my old mate Edward Hugh on the political economics (or the economic politics) of Catalonia's drive for independence. We will hear more on this subject in the coming months.

March Books 16) Bruss. Brussels in Shorts, ed. Ilke Froyen and Piet Joostens

These are the ten winning entries of an international competition for graphic short stories set in Brussels, and specifically using the setting of the Oude Graanmarkt (aka the Vieux Marché aux Grains), a city centre square which I occasionally wander through on the rare occasions I am in that side of town.

Inevitably, the mandate was interpreted in various ways, and in fact two of my favourite pieces (Tomáš Kučerovský's "Stereotypen" and William Goldsmith's "De Moderne Rondeau") both contrast the fading gentility of the central square with the European Parliament's modernist architecture, which of course I know much better. Kučerovský (whose complaint that "I don't really get Magritte, Brussels isn't surreal at all", illustrates this entry) has quite a witty deconstruction of what people think they see in Brussels. Goldsmith's protagonist gets sucked into a historical mystery linking Brussels and Canada, a hundred years apart.

I bought the book mainly to try and improve my vestigial knowledge of comics in Flanders, but only three of the ten pieces are actually by Flemish writers; of these, the one I liked best was "De Wandeling" by Conz (Constantijn Van Cauwenberghe), in which the protagonist takes a ghostly dinosaur on the walk from the Oude Graanmarkt to the Natural History Museum. (The other two locals are Frederik Van den Stock and Steven "Stedho" Dhondt.) All good stuff though.

March Books 17) Sky Pirates!, by Dave Stone

'You've had more experience with the man. It doesn't always end like that, does it?' She realized that Benny was of a sudden looking slightly nervous. 'Does it?'
'Um,' said Benny.
After some very downbeat New Adventures in my recent reading, it was good to read one that deliberately and successfully played up the comedy - this often misfires for me, but in this case I was able to roll with the very alien creatures and their sinister plans while also sympathising very much with the confused new companions Roz and Chris; like them, I was never completely convinced that I knew what was going on, but it was fun and kept me engaged.

Hugo Best Novel nominee stats

Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas, John Scalzi110003.827293.85
Blackout, Mira Grant44534.202774.09
Captain Vorpatril's Alliance, Lois McMaster Bujold21674.193484.17
Throne of the Crescent Moon, Saladin Ahmed19073.612173.54
2312, Kim Stanley Robinson18593.412963.52

Well, there's a clear front-runner. Full nominations list is here.