Wednesday, July 30, 2008


To tell the truth, I haven't come across much new literary fiction that I've enjoyed recently. And this applies to the more adventurous stuff as well as to "mainstream" works. (I'd enjoyed Nazi Literature in the Americas, but gave up on The Savage Detectives around page two hundred.) However, I did enjoy Hope. Initially, it alternates between two stories: that of a contemporary poet marooned on a desert island, and that of a thirteenth-century monk. But fortunately it's not one of those books where the present and past stories are mysteriously connected, and the hero in the present has to solve a bunch of puzzles to find out what the connection is. There is a connection between the two stories, but it's not mysterious, and we find out what it is soon enough. As the novel continues, we realize that its main subject is the poet's obsession with two events which took place before the novel began: his married lover left him with no explanation, and his friend deserted him. In the second half of the book, both stories swerve in unexpected directions.

But it wasn't the book's plot which attracted me to it: it was the prose. It's not that the prose is particularly ornate. In fact, it's more its clarity that attracted me. But rather than try to explain further, I'll provide a couple of samples and let you decide. Here's the first paragraph of Chapter 1:

"Father Benedictus walks the concrete floors of his domain. It is a sunny morning on a hilltop and the view is of the sea, but the sea is mountains and the mountains have valleys and the valleys are filled with sacramental fog. It is the first sunny morning after weeks of rain. Father Benedictus commands a vista that oversees the fog and the sheer peaks that emerge from it. It is 1293."

And the first paragraph of Chapter 2 (the start of the present-day story):

"Behind me the palms are buzzing in the breeze. It's the twenty-eighth day of a spring that never seems to end. I'm on an island. I don't remember the year. I can hear the birds but I don't remember their names. Sometimes I can almost make out what they're saying. A year ago or two or ten I was left here. They might have killed me. Instead they didn't. I am less than fifty years old."

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