Reviews Round-Up

The critics’ verdicts on André Brink, Artur Domoslawski and Claire Kilroy.

With the Man Booker shortlist scheduled to be announced in under a month the review columns are still busily ingurgitating the long list. Last week many of the papers focused André Brink’s Philida, named after its protagonist, a black slave who decides to lodge a complaint against her lover after he reneges on his promise to free her.

Peter Kemp’s review in the Sunday Times was less than adulatory. Recurrent references to tight-knit artistry can’t conceal the fact that Brink gets himself into a hapless ­tangle” he writes, appearing actively affronted by the fact that “the obscene maltreatments of slaves are regularly mentioned but seem to exist in a different realm from the one in which she [Philida] dauntlessly overrides menace”, as a result of which the book “nullifies any sense of the danger and terror her real-life counterpart must have suffered.”

Other reviewers were more positive. Alex Clark writes in the Guardian that it is “an impressively nuanced and ambiguous piece of work” whose “strength lies in the delicate understanding of subtle shifts in power in the Cape Colony's teetering ecosystem”. With these shifts come similarly subtle plays on the reader’s affections: “Brink's achievement is to invoke a measure of sympathy for the fading Dutch colonialists as well” that for their slaves. Yet this doesn’t challenge Philida’s position as the heroine and whilst she “can occasionally feel like a mouthpiece for a rather overworked metaphor … she can also be brilliantly irreverent and almost ribald”. This playfulness acts as a good contrast against the book’s more haunting moments, and these elements of “light and shade that Brink has skillfully introduced into his augmented family history make for a compelling and memorable novel.”

Patrick Flanery, writing in the Telegraph, called it “moving story” that “vividly dramatises the courage required to lay claim to the protections of the law.” “Slaves – both male and female – are repeatedly reminded in Philida that their bodies are not their own”, yet “this is not to suggest that Philida is a passive victim. If she lacks the physical strength to repel unwanted attention from her owners, her command of language becomes ever more defiant.” Whilst it is “familiar territory for Brink”, whose earlier novel Chain of Voices explored a slave rebellion that is also referenced in Philida, and “a familiar story, it is one that must continue to be told, not least by white writers willing, as Brink is, to disinter the histories of complicity buried in their own ancestries.” For it turns out that Philida's "owner" Cornelis, is the brother of one of Brink's ancestors.

The marriage of fact and fiction also occurs in the work of Ryszard Kapuscinski, though somewhat more unfortunately considering his position as a journalist. As such, one of the primary concerns of Ryszard Kapuscinski: A Life, biography by Artur Domoslawski, is to chart these inaccuracies.

Ian Birrell remarks in the Guardian that though “as a reporter, his actions were indefensible”, one cannot overlook “the brilliance with which he turned frontline journalism into a form of literature.” Thus, by the end of his “masterful” and “inquisitive” biography, “Domoslawski finally understands his friend and mentor: ‘Ryszard Kapuscinski – the hero of Ryszard Kapuscinski books – is also a fictional character.’” As a result of the the controversies unearthed, the biography “caused a furore when published in Poland two years ago” gripping the country with the “confirmation of collusion with the communist authorities. But what makes it so interesting is that the author does not shred Kapuscinki's reputation, not does he ignore the mounds of uncomfortable evidence. Instead, he peels away and probes with understanding, producing not just a fascinating biography of an important writer but also a subtle study of life under authoritarianism”. Though “at times Domoslawski's style, possibly due to its translation from Polish, seems almost self–consciously to echo its subject's writing”.

Marek Kohn’s review in the Independent, however, sees more of a contrast between the work and its subject. "It refuses to adopt the strategy favored by its author's friend and mentor", for whom the "harmony of the composition counters the disturbance aroused by his accounts of war and the physiology of power." Domoslawski "never spares his readers his discomfort and dismay … He is dedicated in pursuit of evidence… [and] leaves the surfaces unsmoothed and the edges jagged.” Though Kohn does note that “both the text and its subject are tissues of complexes, striving to construct themselves out of their own insecurities.” Despite this shortcoming, he calls the result the “first comprehensive reckoning” with Kapuscinski.

Though Claire Kilroy's The Devil I Know, the fictional testimony of an Irish moneylender named Tristram, isn't poised to court controversy in the way that Domoslawski's book does, Sheena Joughin notes in the Telegraph that “the cover of [her] fourth novel declares her 'a writer unafraid to take risks', which is undeniably true.” What she is doubtful about is whether the risks always pay off, pulling out one of the protagonist's quotes "what precisely the whole sorry mess goes to show – I cannot yet say” with the wry comment that “Kilroy’s greatest risk is perhaps that readers may feel the same way.” "The prose is peppered with puns, sub-Beckettian deadpan, and much inscrutable free-association" and "lacks drama, since Tristram is never excited by the boom his company facilitates, as he would have to be for his oddly insubstantial story to engage us."

Amber Pearson's review in the Daily Mail is less damning, calling the satire “energetic” and “at times genuinely creepy”. The novel “takes delight in literary allusions and diabolical puns, but despite the humour there’s real fury in her portrayal of the casual greed, corruption and wilful delusion that pervaded society ‘like the pox’, creating a belief in a kind of modern alchemy: the conviction that Ireland’s soil could be turned to gold.”

Polish author Ryszard Kapuscinski is the subject of Domoslawski's biography (Photo: Getty Images)
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Man in the mirror-ball: Simon Armitage's The Unaccompanied

With this mature, engaging and empathetic work, the poet softens the pain of passing years. 

The Unaccompanied, by Simon Armitage
Faber & Faber, 76pp, £14.99

“The centuries crawl past,” Simon Armitage notes in his new collection, “none of them going your way”. After a decade of acclaimed travelogues, transgressive prose poetry, and above all translation, Armitage has combed those centuries to produce innovative versions of ancient and medieval texts: Pearl, The Death of King Arthur, Homer’s Odyssey, Virgil’s Georgics. In The Unaccompanied he returns, refreshed from his sojourn in the past and bringing the classics with him; in the book’s dystopian present, in “Poundland”, Odysseus meets the ghost of his drunken comrade Elpenor not in the Underworld, but “slumped and shrunken by the Seasonal Products display”, the poem’s pseudo-archaic English underscoring its ironic rewriting of Homer. Meanwhile, the protagonist of “Prometheus”, holed up in a post-industrial wasteland, sees his father retrieve not fire, but a Champion spark plug.

To lighten its nightmarish visions, The Unaccompanied offers the same beguiling playfulness that has characterised Armitage’s verse from his 1989 debut, Zoom!, to the “Merrie England” of Tyrannosaurus Rex versus The Corduroy Kid (2006). “Tiny”, for instance, reads like an old-school Ladybird Book (“Simon has taken his father, Peter,/to the town’s museum”) and “The Poet Hosts His Annual Office Christmas Party” makes a mischievous nod to Yeats. As ever, there are pinpoint references to popular culture; in “Gravity”, it is the “six-minute-plus/album version” of Fleetwood Mac’s “Sara” that plays on the stereo in the sixth-form common room. Yet Armitage’s concern for the socially excluded – the “skinny kid in jeans and trainers” from “The Ice Age” to whom the poet offers a spurned coat, “brother to brother” – burns unabated.

This collection articulates a new anger that is more personal, a lament for individual mortality, the sadness of time moving on too far and too fast. In “The Present”, the poet attempts to take an icicle home to his daughter:

a taste of the glacier, a sense of the world

being pinned in place by a
diamond-like cold

at each pole, but I open my hand

and there’s nothing to pass on, nothing to hold.

Armitage’s fluid poetics are pitch-perfect and his imagery remains incisive. The bare winter larch trees become “widowed princesses in moth-eaten furs”. In “Poor Old Soul” an elderly man sits, “hunched and skeletal under a pile of clothes,/a Saxon king unearthed in a ditch”. This is the measured poetry of late middle-age, in which only the promise of more loss fills the “white paper, clean pages”. In “Kitchen Window”, the poet’s mother taps the smeared glass before she falls away “behind net curtains” and then further “to deeper/darker reaches and would not surface”. “Emergency” (published in the NS in 2013) could almost be his audition for Grumpy Old Men. “What is it we do now?” he asks as he details the closed banks, and pubs where “tin-foil wraps/change hands under cover/of Loot magazine”. W G Hoskins’s gentle topological classic is referenced in “The Making of the English Landscape”, though a very different country is seen at dusk from a satellite:

like a shipwreck’s carcass raised on a
sea-crane’s hook,

nothing but keel, beams, spars, down to its bare bones.

In “Harmonium”, the poet’s father – who, in 1993’s Book of Matches, berated him for having his ear pierced – helps his son lug an unwanted organ from their local church and reminds him “that the next box I’ll shoulder through this nave/will bear the load of his own dead weight”.

Armitage’s poetic world is instantly recognisable, always inclusive. We know the faded ballrooms that turn into even sadder discos in “The Empire”. Or the clumsy children’s shoe fitter of “The Cinderella of Ferndale”, who leaves her own footprints of disappointment. As the poet stumbles on a farmers’ fancy-dress parade for a breast cancer charity in “Tractors”, the slight incident bleeds into the universal shock of diagnosis: “the musket-ball/or distant star/in your left breast”. Critics often cite Philip Larkin as an influence on his work, but Armitage’s highly tuned sense of such “mirror-ball” moments – small but refracting repeatedly across time and lives – is all his own. Thankfully, with this mature, engaging and empathetic work, he is back to record them for us, softening the pain of passing years. 

Josephine Balmer is a poet and classical translator. “Letting Go: Mourning Sonnets” will be published by Agenda Editions in July

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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