BOOK REVIEW: Animals in Our Days by Mohamed Makhzangi

Animals in Our DaysAnimals in Our Days by Mohamed Makhzangi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: June 14, 2022

Besides being animal-themed or animal-centric to varying degrees, there are a couple of other features common to the stories in this translated collection from Egyptian author, Mohamed Makhzangi. First, it’s truly international in terms of settings. In addition to stories that take place closer to the author’s (i.e. in the Middle East,) there are tales set in Bangkok, Jaipur, Windhoek, and undefined but evocative locales that all feel based on the author’s travels. Second, the stories tend to have a dreamy, surreal quality and / or speculative elements – i.e. they aren’t strictly realist, but more magical realist. At times, stories read like Kafka (e.g. “Brass Grasshoppers”) and at other times like a fairy tale (e.g. “White Bears / Black Bears.”) Where the stories vary is with respect to theme, from war to alienation to the interconnectedness of nature.

The translation by Chip Rossetti is highly readable, and the stories are well-crafted, engaging, and often thought-provoking. I’d recommend this for all readers of short fiction.


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BOOK REVIEW: The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien

The Third PolicemanThe Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Full-disclosure: I’m a huge fan of stories involving mind-bending, surrealist worlds, of which this is a masterful example. I also find dry, absurdist humor of the Monty Python variety to be hilarious, and this book has loads of it. In short, for me this book was a match made in heaven.

The opening of the story is normal enough. There are two characters who seem to be inseparable friends, but – in fact – they are inseparable because they conspired to murder an old man in order to steal his money. One man, the protagonist, fears that the other man (who knows where the loot was stashed) will make off with the money, leaving our lead high and dry. After the two have left time for the heat to die down, the partner (who knows where the money is) suggests they go to retrieve and split it. Recognizing that the protagonist doesn’t trust him, the partner suggests that the protagonist go into the old man’s abandoned house to extract the lock-box that they left behind.

The protagonist agrees, and once he enters the old man’s house, we know that he has tumbled down some sort of rabbit-hole. The reader doesn’t learn what the cause of this shift into a dreamlike world is until near the end of the story, but it’s quite obvious that this isn’t the real world. “Dreamlike” is an apt descriptor. While this bizarre world clearly builds on the world as he knows it, it also defies the logic of the world as we know it. Furthermore, as when in a dream, the protagonist doesn’t recognize the strange logic of how this world operates, nor does he truly recognize how strange people’s behavior is.

The strangeness begins with the protagonist’s discovery of the man he killed – apparently living – in the house. The conversation gets off to an odd start when the protagonist discovers that the old man will only answer yes / no questions in the negative, and so he’s been giving false information about half the time. Their meandering conversation shifts onto the titular “policemen,” who – while vaguely authority figures – are involved in all manner of inexplicable activities from making garments that indicate the length of a person’s lifespan to taking measurements of unexplained quantities for unexplained purposes (or – perhaps – no purpose.) The protagonist reasons that since these policemen seem to know so much, they will surely be able to tell him where the lock-box is located.

As I said, the book contains a lot of absurdist humor. Some of this derives from the policemen’s obsession with bicycles. When the protagonist arrives, they just assume he is there about a stolen bicycle (or bicycle parts) and – no matter how he tries to convince them otherwise – they continue to answer his inquiries about other matters in terms of bicycles. (There’s also a bit of an unexplained obsession with pancakes, as when a difficult problem is called an “insoluble pancake.”)

As I say, I love this kind of book, and I thought this is a particularly skillful and amusing example of the genre. I’d highly recommend it for readers who like their fiction trippy. Despite huge doses of surrealism, it’s easy to follow what is going on in the story, and to distinguish what is real and what is imaginary.

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BOOK REVIEW: Story of the Eye by Georges Bataille

Story of the EyeStory of the Eye by Georges Bataille
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This story follows a couple through a destructive series of events as they chase sexual hedonism. They aren’t a couple in the romantic sense so much as friends who share in common both intense sex drives and also a particular psychology. It’s a psychology commonly associated with rebellion against a repressive upbringing. This rebellion manifests both in a longing for perverse and taboo activities, and also in an urge to debauch the virtuous. This love of depravement is first seen in the pair’s actions with a conflicted girl of their own age, Marcelle, and in the climax and conclusion with a young priest in Seville. In yet a darker turn, the two also conflate violence and sexual arousal.

Character development is not particularly strong in this book, and without the requisite background, the actions of the unnamed male narrator and his companion, Simone, can seem hard to believe at times. (To be fair, the book is more surrealism than realism.) While lack of character development and character complexity are a common problem in erotic literature, this book is also smothered in Freudian belief about how strange sexual drives always and everywhere exist in the subconscious in a struggle to break free. In other words, Bataille may not have felt he needed to set up the reader for the bizarre behavior of the narrator and Simone because he saw the pair as not as unusual, but merely as how most people would behave if they were a bit braver and less inhibited.

Marcelle is the most multi-dimensional character. We see her on a teeter-totter that balances primal urges and constraining morality, or shame and abandon. But we don’t get much depth of her either because she is treated largely as a puppet or plaything for the lead characters.

The novel shares some tendencies in common with the works of Marquis de Sade, but it also displays some differences. The eroticizing of degrading virtuous characters is a theme that holds over. It might also seem that the involvement of a Catholic priest is a continuation of Sade’s philosophy as well. However, there’s a difference. In Sade’s work (and similar works of erotic political philosophy) the priests are lecherous and are villains in league with the aristocracy. Bataille’s priest is a man minding his own business, who would like to be virtuous, but the young priest just doesn’t have the inner strength in the face of a strong-willed debaucher.

From the discussion above and the comparison with the works of the Maquis de Sade, it should be clear that there is a great deal of graphic sexual activity and even a little bit of graphic violence in this book. For readers who aren’t disturbed by that, and who are amenable to a bit of bizarre and surreal activity, the book is intriguing both as a story and for its psychological insight. If you read horror, and aren’t disturbed by fetish sexual activity, you’ll probably enjoy this book.

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