Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 6, 2020

Six Degrees of Separation: from The Road, to….

This month’s #6Degrees starts with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. This is one of the very few books I’ve read that I’ve really disliked.  I really loathed the nihilism in The Road.  (It’s my dislike of this book that’s partly why this #6Degrees is so late. I just couldn’t think of a way to get started because I didn’t want to start with the obvious, i.e. another book that I didn’t like.)

Instead I’ll link to another book with the same title, that I fully expect to like: The Road, Short Fiction and Articles by Vasily Grossman, translated from the Russian by Elizabeth Chandler and Robert Chandler.  This book is on my TBR along with Grossman’s Forever Flowing, which I expect to like too.  I really admire Grossman, who was a brave journalist in Stalinist Russia, and I really liked his wise and humane Armenian Sketchbook, also translated by Elizabeth Chandler and Robert Chandler, which I’ve reviewed here.

Grossman is on my mind because I’ve been talking about him with my optometrist.  (To get a prescription for glasses for my ‘new’ eyes.  Yes, at last they have ‘settled’ enough after my surgery though I’ve still got ‘fog’ in the corner of one of them.)  Randal loves books and reading and so he understands the torment of not being able to read properly that I’ve endured. (I know, not always without whinging, sorry.)  He’s bought the new NYRB translation of Life and Fate as a present for someone, and fully expects to get it back to read in due course. I read Life and Fate before I went to Russia in 2012.  (Remember when we could travel?  Remember when we could plan for the next trip, even straight after we got back home and were barely over the jet lag? *sigh*).  I read Life and Fate in an earlier edition, and as you can see from my review was very moved by it.  As I explained to Randal, I’d also read Antony Beevor’s military history Stalingrad but that just overwhelmed me with the human misery of it…

People like to debate whether historical fiction is true to the truth of history.  This week I’ve been reading Thom Conroy in this article which suggests that historical fiction may be emerging as the defining genre in [New Zealand’s] contemporary literary culture. Conroy is the author The Naturalist, a book I really loved. The novel is historical fiction to correct the injustice of New Zealand’s colonial history that has been unvoiced: it tells the story of illegal land acquisition but also the story of at least one man who respected the Māori and their customs—but ultimately was powerless to change the course of events.

Fred Khumalo, whose article in the Johannesburg Review of Books I’ve mentioned before, argues that historical fiction has a useful role to play in revealing the hidden history of colonialism.  His novel, Dancing the Death Drill, tells the story of a ‘gap’ in history: a WW1 tragedy that involved hundreds of black South Africans. This was a story that was almost in living memory, and there was documentary evidence of the warship sinking, but often stories of this type rely entirely on oral history, passed on from generation to generation but never included in the written record.

An example of this is She Would Be King, by Liberian-American Wayétu Moore, which tells the story of the slave trade in Liberia and explores the hostility between the liberated American slave settlers and the indigenous tribes.

On the other hand, sometimes the written record can be satirised to great effect.  The best example of this is A Most Peculiar Act by Marie Munkara.  As I explain in my review:

The ‘peculiar act’ referred to in the title is the Aboriginal Ordinances Act of 1918, and in what amounts to a stroke of political and literary genius, Munkara has structured her novella around clauses from this act at the beginning of each chapter of the book.

Munkara, who is of Rembarranga descent, deftly juxtaposes the patronising aims of the act with the lived reality of its effect in mission life, and I can’t think of any other book which so incisively exposes the wrongs done to Indigenous people.  Humour is used to lighten the tone but it’s still a book that every legislator should read IMO.

So that’s my #6Degrees: from grim nihilism to rambunctious humour!

Next month’s book is Normal People by Sally Rooney.

Thanks to Kate at Books are my Favourite and Best for hosting:)

 

 


Responses

  1. Good list Lisa. I like that thought about “historical fiction may be emerging as the defining genre in [New Zealand’s] contemporary literary culture.” (Though don’t tell Bill.) I think that fiction – both historical and contemporary – can make a significant contribution to truth-telling and thence, hopefully, to reconciliation.

    BTW re nihilism. I was absolutely mesmerised by the writing in The road. I think because I’m such an optimist I can handle nihilism. It makes me sad, and can definitely lower my mood, but I’m interested to read it because it is so foreign to my own world view.

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    • *chuckle* Re Bill: the campaign continues!
      (But then, he’s never going to change my mind about SF, so we’re quits).

      Liked by 1 person

      • True, Lisa – but I’m sure we are “righter” about historical fiction than he is about SF. Haha.

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  2. Lots on your list that I would like to read. My library has a couple of Grossman’s titles, so they’re now on my wishlist. UK libraries aren’t great at buying in books by ANZ writers, I’ve found. I guess I’ll have to buy The Naturalist and A Most Peculiar Act!

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    • I’m afraid that’s true, Jan, though if you’re in London, you can sometimes pick up Aussie books from the LRB Bookshop. There is also Gallic Books, which believe it or not sells books by both Australian and New Zealand authors. At the moment they have Fiona Kidman’s This Mortal Boy which is an excellent book and won their major fiction prize last year. See https://belgraviabooks.com/pb/gb-our-books
      I also find it’s difficult to source NZ books, even though they’re only ‘across the ditch’ from us.
      Do be careful if you order using the Book Depository… for years I used to link to them so that people could source our books, only to be told one day, that half the time they don’t have stocks and are never going to get them.

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      • Thanks for those tips, Lisa. I’ve never visited the LRB bookshop on any of our trips to London. I’ll have to build that in on a future visit.

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        • The LRB make good coffee too, it’s where I had a meetup with my niece who lives in London:)

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  3. You always introduce me to books that I’ve never heard of, so thank you (I think – they tend to be hard to find over here). And I had no idea you felt so strongly about The Road. I put off reading it for similar reasons, but in the end it won me over. (*ducks apologetically!)

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    • Hi Marina, good to hear from you! See my reply to Jan about possible sources for our books, but yes, it is difficult. Especially if you don’t like eBooks.

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  4. I’m glad to hear your eyes are improving Lisa! (As a fellow suffer of vision problems!)

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    • Thank you! I have not been very patient, so LOL it’s probably been good for my character…

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  5. I’ve never wanted to read The Road for the reasons you describe, but your links all sound fascinating! I’m trying to only read from the TBR at the moment, but Readings do a great service shipping to the UK…

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    • Yes, I remember Kim (from Reading Matters) saying that when she was living in the UK. But bear in mind that with very few planes flying in and out of Australia at the moment, deliveries and mail are being much delayed.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I remember the good old days when we could travel and plan to travel! Those days will return….eventually.

    I love the idea that “historical fiction may be emerging as the defining genre in [New Zealand’s] contemporary literary culture”. As a HF reader from way back it’s exciting to think about the possibilities of so many stories still to be told inspired by the past.

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    • They will, I’m sure they will. One advantage of living in a capitalist society is that if someone is making money out of any product or service, they will find a way to ensure it survives all kinds of disasters.
      But oh my, I do have itchy feet…

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  7. A thought-provoking chain, as always Lisa. I’ll have to get hold of The Naturalist (and a copy for a reading friend that happens to have recently moved to NZ). We studied planning together and he went on to focus his work on planning for indigenous communities (most of his work is still in Australia – moved to NZ for family – but has been learning a lot from Maori history).

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    • Thanks, Kate:) Let me suggest for the the reading friend that he follows Alys on the Blog, and the blog of Booksellers NZ (both URLS are in my blogroll under Booklovers’ Blogs). These two are the best I know for finding out about beaut books from NZ. And suggest that he reads Maori author Patricia Grace (reviews here, under her name in the writers’ list): she is very good at explaining issues that give the lie to the idea that Indigenous politics are all rosy in NZ.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. What an interesting chain, Lisa! I hated The Road and I wished I hadn’t read it. Grossman is superb though, even though his subject matter can be so painful. I love that you discuss him with your optometrist and I hope the eyes continue to improve! :D

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    • Hiya Karen! We are soul-mates on the starter book… not many books I wish I hadn’t read, that linger unwelcome with their malevolence in memory.
      My optometrist has an all-male bookclub, and he’s always keen to talk books!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Normal People is our next Fullers book club read though sadly the book club is on hold for now. I do plan to read it. I don’t read dystopian fiction. Don’t like it at all but I did read The Road when it first came out as it was a book group read. I didn’t mind it. Such a lot of praise for it but the subject is depressing. I could take it or leave it in the end.

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    • It seems to me that too often we end up having to read books we really don’t like because it’s a book group read…

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I’m adding The Naturalist to my reading list. I have read nothing about New Zealand’s colonial history, so this seems ideal for me.
    I skipped out on this round of six degrees. The book had no appeal to me and I just couldn’t get into the right head space to make some connections. I’ll be back next month though. I loved Normal People.

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    • I skip it every now and again too. Doing it, I mean, not reading other people’s.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. I really enjoyed this chain, Lisa. The Conroy article is fascinating and The Naturalist sounds like just my thing. 😀

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    • I’ve got another one of his, called The Salted Air… I must read it soon!

      Liked by 1 person

  12. I always find Cormac McC a harrowing read. Maybe that’s why the V Grossman is still unread on my shelves: not the best time to be reading such bleakness.

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    • Well, yes, and no. I find it inspiring to read how people have faced great peril and yet remained true to their values.

      Like


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