Reviews Round-Up

The critics' verdicts on Christopher Hitchens, Michael Chabon and Ian McEwan.

Mortality by Christopher Hitchens

Published eight months after his death, this collection of observations about what Hitchens called “living dyingly” are drawn from the Vanity Fair pieces that he wrote throughout his illness. John Lloyd, writing in the Financial Times, observes that “Hitchens’ wit doesn’t desert him till the last few fragmentary notes made in the last few sinking days; nor does his sense that he has, after all, been somebody, made it big in the most competitive arena of the most competitive country in the world.”

In the New York Times, Christopher Buckley calls the first seven chapters of the book “diamond-hard and brilliant” and offers a poignant description of the fragmentary jottings which make up the eight and final chapter: “they’re vivid, heart-wrenching and haunting — messages in a bottle tossed from the deck of a sinking ship as its captain, reeling in agony and fighting through the fog of morphine, struggles to keep his engines going.”

In the Guardian, Colm Tóibín calls the memoir “sad and oddly inspiring” and adds that Hitchens “writes with a calm and searching honesty about the idea that “I don’t have a body, I am a body.” He concludes with the claim that Hitchens “does everything to make sure that his voice remains civilised, searching and ready to vanquish all his enemies, most notably in this case the dullness of death and its silence.”

A review will appear in the next issue of the New Statesman.

Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon

The title of Chabon’s first novel in five years refers to the famous Telegraph Avenue that bridges Berkeley and Oakland, California. The jacket refers to it as a "Californian Middlemarch".

Michiko Kakutani writes in the New York Times that “[Chabon] draws an extraordinarily tactile, Kodachrome-crisp picture of the Bay Area world that his characters inhabit… while conjuring the music from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s that [they] love so much and that has given them their vocation. The result is a novel with the grooviest soundtrack since High Fidelity.” She goes on to say that “although the novel gets off to a somewhat sluggish start, it soon achieves escape velocity, demonstrating that Mr. Chabon can write about just about anything… and write about it not as an author regurgitating copious amounts of research, but with a real, lived-in sense of empathy and passion.”

“In keeping with a novel full of jazz, the prose glimmers with accidentals, chromatic flats and sharps and syncopated rhythms,” says The Scotsman, “this stylistic virtuosity would nevertheless be meagre unless it was harnessed to specific ethical and empathetic ends. And Telegraph Avenue is a big book in an almost 19th-century manner; it has births and deaths, separations and reconciliations, the loss of virginity and the loss of friendship, moments of madness and sudden clarities. It is, above all, about consequence and forgiveness. The final pages are genuinely remarkable in their ability to create closure without compromising on emotional complexity.”

Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

Catherine Taylor, writing in the Telegraph, describes McEwan’s latest novel as “a genial, if flawed, foray into John le Carré territory – a wisecracking thriller hightailing between love and betrayal, with serious counter-espionage credentials thrown in.” Eileen Battersea in the Irish Times simply calls it a “glib beach read, marred by stagy dialogue,” and “a middlebrow spy spoof stuffed with self-regard.”

A review in the Economist declares that it is “not Mr McEwan’s finest book” and adds that, despite being “clever”, it is also “curiously forgettable. What it lacks is not so much an animating spirit, as a heart”.

Leo Robson, writing in the New Statesman, notes that the book “contains a certain amount of reflection on reading and writing, offered in the form of an ongoing argument between Serena and Tom which follows to an almost caricatural degree McEwan’s well-established version of the male-female dynamic . . . The couple disagree about modern fiction 'at every turn', and always for crass, gender-essentialist reasons.” Robson writes that “[Sweet Tooth] is a riddle, or perhaps a joke, in which a number of baffling, even boring, elements are clarified and justified by a final flourish. It rewards rereading, but not reading.”

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Orhan Pamuk's The Red-Haired Woman is playful and unsettling

At times, the novel seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past.

When cultures collide or begin to merge, what happens to their myths? In Orhan Pamuk’s psychodramatic and psychogeographic tale of fathers and sons, the protagonist Cem mentally collects versions of the Oedipus story from across Europe – Ingres’s painting of Oedipus and the Sphinx hanging in the Louvre, Gustave Moreau’s work of the same name, painted 50 years later, Pasolini’s film adaptation, Oedipus Rex. But he also fixates on the epic poem “Shahnameh”, written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi; and in particular the story of Rostam and Sohrab, a reversal of the Oedipus story in which father kills son rather than vice versa. As Cem and his wife travel the world’s libraries to inspect copies, what they learn is “how ephemeral all those ancient lives had been”.

Nor is Cem immune to the act of readerly projection. “Like all educated Turks of my father’s generation,” Cem tells us, “what I really hoped to find on these trips wandering the shops, the cinemas, and the museums of the Western world was an idea, an object, a painting – anything at all – that might transform and illuminate my own life.”

Cem has more reason than many to seek clarification: his own father has been absent – whether for reasons of underground political activity or romantic complications is, for a long time, unclear – for most of his childhood; he and his mother become impoverished and, as he tells us at the very beginning of the novel, his dream of becoming a writer yields to a life as a building contractor. But these matter-of-fact bare bones are deceptive, for what unfolds is a far more fabular account of a life gone awry.

Even beyond his father’s departure, Cem’s life is shaped by his teenage apprenticeship to Master Mahmut, a well-digger of great renown. It removes him from his protective mother’s sphere of influence and immerses him in a world at once simple – long hours of physical labour – and highly skilled. As his and Master Mahmut’s quest for water on a patch of land slated for development runs into difficulties, so their relationship – boss and employee, craftsman and disciple, quasi father and son – becomes antagonistic, beset by undercurrents of rivalry and rebellion. Before too long (and avoiding spoilers) matters come to a head.

Throughout, their story gestures toward the fairytale, as underlined by Cem’s irresistible attraction to a travelling theatre troupe performing satirical sketches and classical scenes in the town near their excavation, and to the red-haired woman of the title. But Pamuk, in the style that characterises much of his work, fuses this material with political and social commentary. Over the three or four decades covered by the narrative, which takes place from the mid-1980s to the present day, the landscape of Istanbul and its surrounding areas literally changes shape. Residential and commercial developments spring up everywhere, many of them courtesy of Cem and his wife Aye, who have named their business after Shahnameh’s murdered son, Sohrab. Water shortages belie the sophisticated nature of these new suburbs, which eventually begin to form an amorphous mass.

Cem is preoccupied by the differences between Turkey and Iran, the latter seeming to him more alive to its cultural past. Turks, he decides, “had become so Westernised that we’d forgotten our old poets and myths”. While in Tehran, he sees numerous depictions of Rostam and Sohrab, and finds himself stirred:

I felt frustrated and uneasy, as if a fearful memory I refused to acknowledge consciously might suddenly well up and make me miserable. The image was like some wicked thought that keeps intruding on your mind no matter how much you yearn to be rid of it.

The extent to which individuals and societies suffer by not keeping their mythic past in mind is Pamuk’s subject, but it becomes more ambiguous when different stories are brought into play. What is the significance of a son who kills his father in innocence rather than a father who kills his son? Which is the more transgressive and ultimately damaging act and should both killers be regarded as guiltless because they knew not what they did?

But, as its title is perhaps designed to suggest, these accounts of fathers and sons omit a key element of the family drama: if paternity becomes a focus to the exclusion of all else, maternal energy must find an alternative outlet. As this strange, shifting novel edges to its conclusion – becoming, in its final act, a noir thriller – that energy makes a dramatic return, changing not only the story but the entire narrative paradigm.

The Red-Haired Woman is a puzzling novel; its intentions are often concealed, and oblique. At times, it seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past; it moves forward by indirection, swapping modes and registers at will. Playful and unsettling, it reprises some of Pamuk’s favourite themes – the clash between the past and the erasures of modernity, so charged in a Turkish context, and the effect on the individual’s psyche – without quite reaching the expansive heights of some of his previous novels. It is, nonetheless, an intriguing addition to his body of work. 

The Red-Haired Woman
Orhan Pamuk. Translated by Ekin Oklap
Faber & Faber, 253pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem