Skip to main content

The Map and The Territory by Michel Houellebecq


Meh.
I wonder about books that gain notoriety or fame in their own country (i.e. in the country of the language in which it was first written) and which then make their way into English and are seized upon by the literati as the next [insert country / continental adjective here] masterpiece. A good example in my opinion is Alone in Berlin by “rediscovered” German war-time author Hans Fallada. There was a big fuss, lots of column inches and booksellers going a bit funny over this one, whereas when I was asked to read it for a review at the time, ignorant of its origins I found it childishly written and lacking both in pace and believable characterisation. Was this due to translation? Was it actually really chuffin' good in German? Were us Brits only going by what they were telling us?


I was concerned at the time that it was the subject of a cycle of hype that might eventually spin out of orbit with the introduction of a genuinely critical review from someone high up in the literary strata, but none was forthcoming. My own highly critical review was rejected and I was asked to return with something focused more on its many perceived virtues and its similarities to other successful war-time fiction, so that an open-minded and accepting audience might be inclined to view it with sympathy and then feel a collective ownership and thus protectiveness towards it and the many other “rediscovered” novels of Fallada soon to litter the shelves above Sebastian Faulks. The letter F had never made me more displeased.

Are people really that incapable of judging the worth of a novel, I thought, that they would put dubious critical acclaim from the book’s own publishers (who may or may not just be churning out the spoon-fed reviews from his German publishers) and those people whose livelihoods are at stake if it fails to succeed above an experienced reader’s honest and objective views? (Those of you, who at this point might be expecting a self-deprecating remark, leave now.) Is it fear of being seen to be different or just symptomatic of the book-consumer mentality at large, blithely unaware of the merits of a book as long as someone tells them they will like it?

Wow.
Houellebecq, I feared, might be another such author whose brilliance was lost in translation. Of course, The Map and The Territory shit all over that theory. What a marvellous book, full of brilliance, ideas, and so vividly expressed! If one were to believe his own assertion that France hates him (as he playfully inserts as a concept in the book), then perhaps my theory does hold water. Then again, he did win the Prix Goncort. When ma belle-mère sent my wife a copy in the original French, I was enthusiastic and she was suitably amused. The book itself kept her busy for a few days of concentrated reading, during which she made numerous comments on its enlightening portrayal of modern France, a country in which she had not lived for something like 11 years, and so I asked for an English version when one became available - it arrived for Christmas 2011. 


For such a depressing and joyless subject (the subject is a man's own lack of understanding of pretty much anything that isn't precision engineered, including his relationships with father, stunning girlfriend[s], and his collaboration with the author himself playing himself) the book made me happy and filled me with joy. Houellebecq's own highly entertaining cameo role, as the novelist whose painting by the protagonist is his last offering in paint to the art world, could be considered alarmingly bleak, but then he is mercilessly disposed of in a highly visceral manner part way through the book, a point which marks the beginning of a different strand of narrative, for a little while, before the artist, Jed Martin (who incidentally made his own name with an exhibition of photographs of Michelin road maps) returns to casually solve the crime and embark on his own private artistic denouement. All along the way, Houellebecq's astounding observations on everything from digital cameras to French politics are layered on top of a narrative style so cunningly simple-seeming that you could put a tail on it and call it a weasel. The plot wends lazily through to the inevitable ending (it is a story of a man after all) with periodic bursts of activity, but never labours, or races ahead, and is so damned fine that I can't put words together to describe it.


I am incalculably glad that this book both received rave reviews and is an excellent read. It is a rare jewel indeed in translated fiction (up there with The Book of Chameleons and The Discovery of Heaven) but sadly, reminds me that Hans Fallada is still selling, and selling well. Look at me, all graceless and curmudgeonly. 


Next week - I take a pop at Garcia Marquez.

Comments

How's about that then?

Selected Holiday Reading - The In-Betweeners Abroad

I always try to travel light, a goal, something with which those among you with bookish leanings will empathise, that is challenging for someone intending to do as much reading as they can whilst ignoring as much culture and scenery as is possible. So huzzah and indeed hurrah for the generic e-book reader and its market competitors. Ten years ago I would likely have suffered a paroxysm of disgust for any apologist of the hated technology. Now, it seems, I must take one everywhere I go for more than one night.



The trip to which I am coming, an August sojourn by ferry to Santander and then by VW through Calabria, the Basque country, and north through Aquitaine, Poitou-Charente, Pays de la Loire and Bretagne, was a chance to get some serious reading under the belt. Twelve days of driving, drinking, books and beaches. The only 'real' books that made the trip were The Vagabond's Breakfast, of which more anon, and All The Days And Nights which, as I was on a deadline, I quickly …

Under The Dust by Jordi Coca

So, wheel of fortune, count to 29, pin the tail, freebies off of peeps on Twitter etc. etc. Whatever the methods sometimes employed to pick the next book in my intertextual experience, the one that brought me to Jordi Coca brought me to a whopping great slice of nostalgia. Before I'd even opened it, it brought to mind Richard Gwyn, himself a published poet, author, biographer, translator and course director of the MA Creative Writing course at Cardiff University, who I recall for some odd reason gently encouraging me to read this novel, and by whose own work I was quietly impressed at the time. He was also an advocate of Roberto Bolaño, another writer in whose work I can immerse myself but from which I emerge drained, as mentioned previously. Before that, though, there is this sticker on the front, declaring 'Signed by the Author at Waterstone's'. It is indeed signed by Jordi Coca, not adding any particular intrinsic value to the book, not for me anyway, but more impor…

The One from the Other by Philip Kerr

Philip Kerr is an author I have been reluctant to attempt to review for some time. His Berlin Noir trilogy cost me some hours of sleeplessness and in the end I decided to skip a review and just be happy to have read it and therefore move it from the pile of unread novels, via the edge of my desk where the “to review” pile occasionally falls over on to the typewriter and spills my pen pot across the floor and thus causes significant risks when stumbling blindly about the room at night too drunk to remember where my bed is or having just been jolted awake by the boy shrieking from the next room and running asleep into walls and doors, to the back half of my giant Ikea bookcase where novels that have been read and have caused my self-esteem to shatter on the diamond-hard edges of someone else’s talent currently reside, gathering dust and moisture until hitting the mildew tipping point and becoming physically dangerous in their own right. This awesome crew consists mainly of Will Self, Jo…

Hannah Green And Her Unfeasibly Mundane Existence by Michael Marshall Smith

I was sold this book by Simon at the Big Green Bookshop in return for the money it cost plus a small donation towards operating costs and postage. 

In truth, I'd forgotten it was on its way, and it was a fucking lovely surprise when it arrived at my desk in work, my letterbox at the time being a tad short on width and breadth and unlikely to admit a hardback plus packaging. I recall very much enjoying reading Michael Marshall Smith, and I also enjoyed re-reading him, recently, and I documented this here, here and here. This was a book for which I hadn't realised I'd been waiting for a long time. 

However, had I not the history and warm, cosy feelings safely tucked up in the nostalgia bank, I would probably not have picked this up, going solely on the cover. There's a clock, the silhouette of a small girl, and leaves, along with a colour contrast and meandering font which brought to mind something cringe-worthily reminiscent of Alexander McCall-Smith*, or the covers of Sc…