Waiting for the Barbarians.

I’d sort of avoided J.M. Coetzee for a while, given his reputation for dark, depressing themes; one of his two Booker Prize-winning novels, Disgrace, involves rape as a significant plot point more than once in the book. I was in a used book store in Manhattan in June, however, and saw Waiting for the Barbarians, which made the Guardian‘s list of the 100 greatest novels ever written, on the shelf for a few bucks, and figured at 156 pages it would at least be over quickly if I hated it – and maybe it would surprise me. I can’t see it as a top 100 all-time novel, but I got more out of the book than I expected, as it’s a fable that seems to combine some of the best of Italo Calvino and Kazuo Ishiguro (the latter of whom won the Nobel Prize for Literature, as did Coetzee), in a work that I’d call the better Darkness at Noon.

The story is set in an unnamed frontier town at the edge of the Empire, where the main character, the Magistrate, has served his country for some years when a Colonel arrives and “interrogates” some prisoners, including a father and son, about the activities of nearby barbarians who might threaten the town or the Empire itself. The Magistrate is dubious about the actual level of the threat, and is disgusted by the Colonel’s use of torture, which kills one of the prisoners and leads to questionable answers – likely the ones that the Colonel wanted anyway to justify a military effort against the barbarians. When the first effort yields a new set of prisoners, who are further tortured, the Magistrate takes pity on one woman among them who’s been blinded by the Colonel’s men. This decision and a journey to eventually return her to her people pits the Magistrate against the Colonel, who declares him a traitor and makes him a political prisoner and pariah in his own town.

Waiting for the Barbarians was first published in October of 1980, winning the James Tait Memorial Prize for that year, but it certainly seems to presage the United States’ two invasions of Iraq (1991 and 2003), especially the latter which, as we now know, was predicated on questionable intelligence about the Iraqi regime’s possession of or attempts to acquire weapons of mass destruction. Coetzee’s use of nameless towns and characters only emphasizes its fabulist, universal nature; he’s discussing core features of leaders who operate without viable opposition and exposing how functionaries may work to provide the answers desired by their superiors rather than the correct or just ones. Coetzee exposes the worst of humanity here, but it’s all well-grounded in actual events that preceded the book’s writing, in dictatorships and democracies.

I read Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, considered one of the peak novels of anti-communist literature, back in 2008, but couldn’t connect with any of the characters and found the narrative to be distant and cold. Coetzee infuses the Magistrate with more complexity; he’s flawed, a little bigoted, or at least mistrustful, but also highly empathetic, and less disdainful of women than the government officials or soldiers who come to the village and do as they please. The submissive response of the residents of the town, who seemed to respect the Magistrate until the Empire turned on him and labeled him a traitor, mirrors the inaction of many residents of past aggressors, including the Axis powers of World War II, who stood by while their neighbors were arrested, tortured, or murdered. The Magistrate seems to hope that if he stands up for what he believes to be just, others will support him; instead, people he thought were his friends act as if he’s not even there, until later in the novel when the tides shift the other way again and it’s safer to come out on his side.

This is a very grim worldview, but it’s an accurate one, and the 37 years since the book’s publication haven’t dulled its (deckled) edges one iota. Leaders continue to provoke conflicts and pursue wars on spurious grounds to distract their citizens or stage some patriotism theater. Had Coetzee made the Magistrate more of a one-dimensional martyr, it would have come at a great cost to the story’s staying power, but because his protagonist is so thoroughly human, it seems like a story that, while depressingly real, will have staying power for decades to come.

Next up: Angela Carter’s Wise Children, also on that Guardian list.

The Snow Child.

Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child is a grown-up fable, a fairy tale in the more traditional sense of the term (where endings were seldom happy), a very simple story in one of the most striking settings I’ve come across in contemporary literature. In a quick read with only a half-dozen characters of any import, the book manages to delve into questions of love, parenthood, loss, grief, and meaning, without becoming cloy or mawkish. The novel was a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction finalist in 2012, losing to Adam Johnson’s amazing novel of North Korea The Orphan Master’s Son.

The Snow Child takes place in Alaska in 1920, where we meet a childless couple, Mabel and Jack, scratching out a life as farmers in the forbidding landscape, where starvation is a threat each winter if you haven’t grown enough crops and killed enough game to get through the season. The pair lost one baby in childbirth many years ago, and it appears the death and subsequent inability to have another child has left them in a permanent state of barely-there depression, culminating in Mabel’s suicide attempt at the start of the novel. Shortly after, during an early snowfall, the two end up building a snowman – or snowgirl, giving her mittens and a scarf and talking about what this girl might be like (and yes, it’s like that sappy movie The Odd Life of Timothy Green, but only in setup). The next morning, the snowgirl is gone, but both Mabel and Jack spy a young girl running around in the woods with a fox, a girl who turns out to be very real, at least in the tangible sense, but only appears in the winters and says she lives by herself in the mountains in the summers. Mabel recognizes similarities between this child, named Faina, and an old Russian children’s book she had growing up in Pennsylvania, while Jack learns more about Faina’s life before they found her that seem to ground her firmly in reality.

Ivey never bothers to clear Faina’s backstory up for the reader, allowing the character’s reality to flicker before us so we can experience the uncertainty of Mabel and Jack. It reminded me of nothing so much as the saying that being a parent is like learning to live with your heart outside of your body; not only did the couple suddenly find a child years after such a thing seemed impossible, but her appearance defied reality and she would disappear for months at a time without explanation. Mabel in particular seems to vacillate from high highs to deep funks around the girl’s appearances, while Jack is trying to grapple with his rational side even as he comes to love the girl like a daughter.

Faina’s story arc is a bit predictable, and Ivey doesn’t even try to hide it, providing plenty of foreshadowing (and, I thought, winking and nodding at the reader all the way) through the Russian folktale, but despite the girl’s status as the title character and hinge for the story’s action, this book is far more about everybody else. Faina herself has no depth; she’s a wisp of a thing, in physical and emotional sense, but whatever her true identity might be, she’s ultimately the book’s primary plot device. Ivey crafts this forbidding setting that combines breathtaking natural beauty – her landscape descriptions are some of the most evocative I’ve come across – and dark, menacing conditions that seem unfit for human habitation, then drops two characters, already drenched in melancholy for the life they didn’t expect they’d live, into it. Finding moments of joy or even simply of humanity – the relationship the couple develops with the Bensons provides a second emotional center, not to mention lots of great talk of jams and preserves – without resorting to pure sap is a deft trick of both plot and character development. Ivey manages to celebrate life and all that is good within it even in the face of the certainty of sorrow and the realization we all face that we have less control over our lives than we’d like, right up to our endings.

Ivey’s second novel, To the Bright Edge of the World, comes out on August 2nd. Given how much I enjoyed this book, including the detailed yet quick prose, I imagine I’ll read that one fairly soon.

Next up: I’m most of the way through Zia Haider Rahman’s Tait Prize-winning novel In the Light of What We Know, an expansive, erudite novel of ideas that seems to grow in scope with every page.

The Buried Giant.

I held a Klawchat on Thursday, and I reviewed the Spiel des Jahres-nomianted family boardgame Broom Service for Paste.

Kazuo Ishiguro wrote two of my all-time favorite novels, the very British stiff-upper-lip story The Remains of the Day and the brilliant dystopian tragedy Never Let Me Go, along with a handful of lesser books that featured his gorgeous prose but couldn’t match the two peaks for storycraft. His latest novel, The Buried Giant ($5.99 for Kindle right now), is a welcome return to form for the English author, offering a plot of simple scenes that lends itself to vast philosophical interpretation, in an unfamiliar milieu that blends beautifully (if anachronistically) with his classical prose.

The Buried Giant takes place in pre-medieval England, where the Saxons are gradually taking over from the native Britons and the land is shrouded in a mist that has caused all people enveloped within it to lose access to many of their long-term memories. An old couple within one settlement, built into a hillside network of caves, sets off on a journey to visit their son, who has moved to another village for reasons no longer clear to his parents, Axl and Beatrice. The pilgrimage goes awry quickly – unsurprising, as the pair don’t even know where their son might be – as they’re co-opted into a larger endeavor involving the warrior Wistan, a mysterious orphan Edwin, the Arthurian knight Gawain, and a dragon whose actual existence is unclear until the very end of the book.

Ishiguro’s Victorian phrasings are stilted in the mouths of his Germanic and Celtic characters, but the language seems to fit his fabulist aims – and, of course, an accurate rendering of their language would leave the book unreadable. Fable it is, however, without the pedantry of traditional fables, instead opening up ruminations on the weight of cultural trauma, coming to grips with the sins of the past, and our individual and collective abilities to move on with or without those memories. Is our ability to forget, at least at a superficial level, an asset or a liability? Is there true reconciliation without reckoning?

Axl and Beatrice end up in between two forces taking contrary approaches to these questions, one seeking to lift the fog, the other to preserve it, and are given the choice of sides to support, knowing that neither option is perfect. Choosing to lift the fog may advance the cause of the people of the region, but expose dormant conflicts between the two of them that have been lost to the mist. It’s the question every country’s leaders face after some horrible internal conflagration or genocide: will the long-term gains from a “truth and reconciliation” commission exceed the short-term pain and renewed enmity from reopening wounds so recently closed?

Ishiguro paints his characters in broad strokes here because the mist he’s created all but demands it; the characters feel round but vague, as if the mist itself is between the reader and the page. The precise, modern English in which the characters speak only adds to the perceived distance from us to the action – and there is action, by the way, not just a Tolkienesque walk through New Zealand landscapes with a lot of talking. Ishiguro plays with his narrative prerogative, shifting his view at times away from Axl and Beatrice, although they remain at the heart of the book, such as scenes that serve to emphasize the objection entrenched forces might have to any reexamination of the past. Oligarchy takes a beating here, but The Buried Giant is no polemic, so while Ishiguro concludes the book with a firm decision by the main characters, the ending is neither happy nor straightforward, much as post-war authorities must struggle with the question of lifting the fogs over their battered nations and dealing with the sins of the recent past.

Next up: Anita Okrent’s book on artificial langages (like Esperanto and, yes, Klingon), In the Land of Invented Languages: Adventures in Linguistic Creativity, Madness, and Genius.

The Tiger’s Wife,

Tea Obreht’s debut novel, The Tiger’s Wife, won the Orange Prize for Fiction (now known as the Women’s Prize for Fiction) in 2011, making her the youngest author to win the award, given to the best English-language novel written by a female author in the preceding year. It’s an unusually thoughtful book for an author of 25, reflecting Obreht’s upbringing in the former Yugoslavia until age 7, when her family moved to Cyprus to flee the war, eventually settling in the United States. The book employs magical realism and obvious yet strong symbolism to cover the tragedy of her native country’s brutal sectarian civil war, although the story was surprisingly antiseptic for such an awful, emotionally-charged subject.

Obreht’s protagonist/narrator is Natalia, a young doctor who has recently lost her grandfather, to whom she was extremely close as a child and who often told her stories of his encounters with “the deathless man,” a man who could not die and claimed to be an agent or acolyte of Death itself; and of the tiger’s “wife,” a deaf-mute woman who befriends a tiger that escaped from a local zoo and lives in the woods outside of the town where the woman lives with her abusive husband. The deathless man draws from just about every major work of magical realism you can think of, as well as more overtly spiritual works like The Alchemist, and as a result is the less interesting of the two major subplots. I understand his relevance in a country repeatedly torn apart by wars, both civil and continental, where death becomes an ordinary part of life, and could see his value as a symbol of something that cannot die or be killed (national pride, family, love) even when death is everywhere.

The fable, presented as fact, of the tiger and the woman known in her village as the tiger’s wife is more complex and more compelling, even though it starts with one of the worst cliches and ends in hatred and intolerance. The tiger is the outsider, escaped from a zoo elsewhere in the country, scraping out an existence on the periphery of this village, apparently aided by the deaf-mute wife of the abusive butcher (the cliche, right down to his back story). Her unknown relationship with the tiger, especially after her husband’s disappearance, becomes the subject of gossip in the town, fueled by fear, ignorance, superstition, and hate. Here lies the book’s greatest strength – where Obreht could have beaten the reader over the head with “bigotry is … bad!” commentary, she allows the story itself to make those points subtly, further softened by the use of a non-human character who appears more often in conversation than in the flesh.

Natalia herself, however, is surprisingly bland, more of an outside observer in the mold of Nick Jenkins without the latter’s wry observational humor. Her relationship with her grandparents is sweet, but draws little sentiment from the reader because so much focus is on the two secondary stories. Her own relationship with her friend Zora, another doctor with whom Natalia visits an orphanage to deliver vaccinations, is an afterthought, as is the story of the band of gypsies tearing up a local field to find the remains of a cousin buried there during the country’s civil war twelve years earlier. It’s rare that I write that a book could have been longer, but Obreht cut herself off too soon and could have tried to tie the four main plot strands together more fully.

Ultimately Obreht’s book reminds me of the two novels by Khaled Hosseini, both strongly symbolic novels that attempt to tell a specific country’s tragic history through smaller narratives, yet both books I enjoyed reading more than I enjoyed pondering after reading them. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with reading for pleasure, but for whatever reason, I prefer novels that stick with me more after I’m done.

Next up: I finally went back and finished Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, which was borderline unreadable, and am about to begin Lush Life, by The Wire writer Richard Price.

The Baron in the Trees.

I want to thank all of you who’ve reached out via one medium or another to offer your prayers, positive thoughts, or best wishes on my upcoming thyroid surgery (one week from today). It’s supposed to be routine, but I admit I’m having a hard time thinking of it as such.

Yesterday’s chat was abbreviated, but I tried to plow through as many questions as I could in that short time.

I was introduced to the Italian novelist/fabulist Italo Calvino in college, in that “Comedy and the Novel” course (taught by the now-retired Prof. Donald Fanger) that also brought me to The Master & Margarita and The Charterhouse of Parma, among other titles. I’ve read other Calvino works, including Inscrutable Invisible Cities, but it wasn’t until I tackled The Baron In The Trees that I found something that lived up to the standard of the first novel of his that I’d read.

The Baron in the Trees is a fable, built on a plausible-but-not-really premise about a young man named Cosimo who, after a squabble with his sister that leaves him on the wrong side of the ledger with his parents, decides to climb one of the many trees on his family’s estate … and never comes down. He adapts to life in the trees, learning to navigate them all over their Ligurian village, ignoring property lines while, Omar Little-style, developing his own code of behavior and straddling the lines between outlaw and vigilante, and between folk hero and village idiot. He falls in love, develops da Vinci-like contraptions, crafts a philosophy (and sends it to Diderot), fights battles, meets Napoleon, and becomes a topic of discussion in the great salons of Europe.

While it’s not quite as imaginative as If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, one of the best and funniest novels I’ve ever read, The Baron in the Trees contains a more straightforward narrative and doesn’t lack for humor. Cosimo (who becomes a baron after his father dies) sees the world differently, figuratively and literally, from his new vantage point, and necessities like food and hygiene force him to conceive new and unusual solutions to keep himself in the trees. He can also better understand the consequences of his actions, such as his response to the discovery of a traitor amongst his father’s retinue, and the development of his philosophy, while obviously satirizing some of the political philosophers of the late 18th and early 19th century, is built on solid foundations, such as his understanding that “association renders men stronger and brings out each person’s best gifts,” while living a solitary, hermit-like existence in the trees was more likely to lead to bitter disagreements borne of a lack of trust between Cosimo and everyone else in the village. (I thought I also detected some elements here satirizing utopian movements of the 19th and even 20th centuries.)

The last third or so of the narrative starts to slow down as Calvino plunges Cosimo into more situations grounded in European history, thus reducing his interactions with members of the village and his own family, but the fact that he maintained a strong plot through a fable without having it fall apart at the end (or having to tie it up with an absurd plot twist) is a testament to his skill as a fabulist. I’d still recommend If on a winter’s night a traveler… (#20 on the Klaw 100) to a reader who has yet to read any Calvino works, but The Baron in the Trees would be an excellent second choice.

Next up: Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

The Year of the Hare.

I’ve got a new blog post up on ESPN.com about Aroldis Chapman and Matt Purke with some other AFL/instructional league notes.

Also, congratulations to all of my Cardinals-fan readers. It’s a little scary to think they pulled this off before any of their high-end pitching prospects reached the majors.

And finally, boardgame designer Reiner Knizia has a new solitaire puzzle/game app available called Lines of Goldicon for just $0.99. I’ve played it twice so far and find it surprisingly complex for a simple set of rules; you can play it quickly, but playing it well seems to take a lot of forethought and a little luck.

Arto Paasilinna’s The Year of the Hare is the most successful novel by Finnish author/poet, more a novella than a full-length novel, telling the story of a journalist who walks away from his life after his car hits and wounds a hare in the forest outside of Helsinki. He spends the next year wandering through the country, headed generally north, encountering eccentric locals and trying to reestablish the priorities in his life.

The protagonist, Charles Vatanen, is a disaffected if successful journalist with a shrewish wife and a boat he doesn’t need, so walking away from his life proves easier than it might for most men of his age. When the car in which he’s riding hits the hare and breaks its leg, he makes a splint for the hare and decides to carry it with him while nursing it back to health. His rejection of modern society and its rampant, empty consumerism leads him to take odd jobs in small towns in the Finnish countryside, including restoring a dilapidated cabin, where he ends up in an extended struggle with a bear who resents the human intrusion into his forest, a chase that goes on for an impossibly long period until Vatanen is arrested by friendly Soviet officials for illegally crossing the border. There’s also an alcohol-induced blackout, a peculiar lawyer, the illegal sale of sunken German munitions, and a wargame put on for the benefit of tourists that leads to a literal and figurative tug-of-war over the hare.

The problem with The Year of the Hare is that it’s more escapist fantasy than actual fable. A fable should have some point, whether it presents a metaphor for some aspect of life or mines humor from parody, but there’s no such cohesion in Paasilinna’s work here. We could interpret the scene in the church, where a priest sees the hare on the altar and ends up chasing it around the building with a pistol before inadvertently shooting himself, as a commentary on the decline of religion in Finland, but I couldn’t read that passage as more than slapstick, with a robed figure running through his own church shooting at a tiny rabbit and putting a bullet through his own foot as well as through the knee of the Christ figure in the apse. Vatanen isn’t running away from anything except the vapidity of modern urban life – something I think many readers can respect and understand regardless of wehre they live – but he’s not really running towards anything. It’s one thing to check out, but another to live as a vagrant without any kind of plan for survival once the cash runs out.

I can’t be certain of this but I believe the translation did Paasilinna no favors. Finnish is a Finno-Ugric language, like Hungarian (Magyar) and Estonian, completely unrelated to the Indo-European languages (including English) that dominate Europe, which might make the translation more difficult. Regardless, referring to a helicopter as a “warplane” or saying that, “The hare was rather nervous; the raven had evidently been molesting it while Vatanen was away working,” is like playing a piano that’s out of tune; either the translator doesn’t speak colloquial English, or Finnish is the weirdest language on earth.

Italo Calvino is probably the best fabulist I’ve come across, and while it’s not my favorite work of his, Marcovaldo: or the Seasons in the City is probably the best collection of fables I’ve found. The blurb for The Year of the Hare compares it to Life of Pi, but the latter book is far superior whether read as a fable or merely for entertainment, with plenty of room for differing interpretations of its meaning and its endnig. As for the comparison offered to Watership Down, putting a a bunny in your book does not make you Richard Adams.

Next up: George Gissing’s novel about struggling writers in late 1800s London, New Grub Street (also available free for the Kindle). Too bad Grub Street is long gone or else we might see an attempt to occupy it.

The Old Man and the Sea.

Podcast links – I was on The Herd yesterday and Baseball Tonight last night. Still working on last night’s Fan 590 Toronto hit, and the Mike & Mike hit should be up later today.

It would be fairly easy to write a note about Hemingway’s The Old Man and The Sea that is actually longer than the book itself, but I’ll resist the urge. I don’t care for Hemingway, having read three of his novels before tackling this novella (#32 on the Radcliffe 100 and winner of the 1953 Pulitzer Prize for Really Short Books of Five-Word Sentences Fiction); his prose style is detached, and I can’t relate to the casual nihilism of many of his main characters. The Old Man and the Sea differs from the other Hemingway novels I’ve read in the latter respect, since it’s more of a fable than a novel, and the title character dares to hope.

The main question around the novella seems to be the symbolic value of the sea and/or the giant fish that the old man catches. These were some possibilities that occurred to me as I read the book:

* The fish represents happiness: You can catch it and hold it for a short period of time, but like all else in life and this world, it will pass. This would mean that Our Lady Peace had it slightly wrong, since happiness would indeed be a fish you can catch, but not one you can keep.

* The fish represents man: King of his little universe until some higher force (fate, God, two-headed aliens with probes … okay, the last one might be a stretch) intervenes. And subjects him to a humiliating, painful decline. This is Hemingway we’re discussing, so you can’t rule that out.

* The sea represents life or fate: Pretty obvious. Man struggling against a force beyond his control and beyond his ability to perceive it, refusing to surrender or accept inevitable defeat.

* The fish and the sea together represent the upper and lower bounds on man’s life. Man can tame or defeat some aspects of his world, but ultimately there is an upper bound on our existence.

We read A Farewell to Arms in AP Lit – I was so pissed at the ending that I threw the book across the room – but never Old Man, which seems to be unusual given how many people tell me they read it in school. Hemingway strikes me as an author best read in an academic setting because his works lend themselves so well to this kind of simple literary analysis. I don’t enjoy his prose, and his stories and characters don’t grip me the way that Fitzgerald’s or Faulkner’s do.

Next up: The second book in William Kennedy’s Albany cycle, Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game. I can already tell you it’s better than Legs.

The City and the Mountains.

José Maria de Eça de Queirós is, according to several sources (including Encyclopedia Britannica and novelist Jose Saramago), considered Portugal’s greatest novelist, yet his works are apparently just now becoming available in English. He introduced realism to Portuguese literature and idolized Flaubert and Balzac while earning comparisons to Zola.

His novel The City and the Mountains, published in Portugal a year after his death and recently translated by Margaret Jull Costa, is a fable wrapped in a paean to natural and rural living. The story revolves around the narrator’s lifelong friend, Jacinto, who lives in luxury in Paris surrounded by high society and machines designed to make his life easier, yet who is miserable and dying of ennui until a chance occurrence recalls him to his ancestral home in the fictional countryside town of Tormes, Portugal.

The novel begins in in Paris (the City) and ends in Tormes (the Mountains), moving from a satire of the decadent and spiritually bankrupt Paris of the late 1800s to the pure, honest, yet feudal society of the still-agrarian Portuguese country. Jacinto’s life in Paris is one of misadventure more than adventure, especially as his machines malfunction, leading him to try to acquire bigger and more complex machines to replace them. Eça de Quierós lampoons the opulence and conspicuous consumption of Parisian society with depictions of over-the-top parties and empty-headed aristocrats as Jacinto drifts unwittingly into soul-crushing despair. Even the religion of the wealthy city-dwellers is perfunctory and perhaps faithless, more concerned with status and the religious hierarchy than questions of piety and charity.

Yet a chance event in Tormes beckons him home, a trip for which he tries to pack as many of his earthly possessions, fearing (ironically) boredom in the isolated hillside town where his family estate lies. After the comic misadventures of the multi-day train trip with the narrator, Zé Fernandes, they arrive in Tormes and Jacinto gradually rediscovers himself, according to Zé:

I forthrightly compared him to an etiolated plant that had been shriveling up in the darkness, among rugs and silks, but which, once placed outside in the wind and the sun and watered profusely, grows green again, bursts into flower and does honor to Mother Nature! … In the City, his eyes had grown crepuscular, as if averted from the World; now, though, there danced in them a noon-tide light, resolute and generous, content to drink in the beauty of things. Even his moustache had grown curly.

Yet Tormes isn’t quite the paradise Jacinto first believes it to be, as the income disparity that was hidden from view in Paris is out in the open on his family’s vast estate. Jacinto himself decides to take on the role of social reformer in the face of opposition from the caretakers, standing in as symbols of the old way of life. It is, in many ways, a call to action to readers who have lost their spirits in the great cities of the time: return to the country, to nature, to your faith, and to your humanity. Even if the setting is dated, the disconnect with nature and the emotional desolation of city life is more than ever a part of our society (and I say that as an unabashed fan in many ways of great cities).

Eça de Queirós litters the book with direct and indirect allusions to literary works, particularly Don Quixote (also a tale of two friends on a quest) and Homer’s The Odyssey (also a quest, one where the main character, like Jacinto, returns at the end to the place of his birth). The two main characters read and re-read these works, and Zé does comment on the parallels between their quest and those of the stories they read, but Eça de Queirós imbues his characters’ quest with a more urgent meaning while still bringing much of the comic brilliance of Cervantes, perhaps even more impressively since he doesn’t get to use the obvious dim-bulb jokes on which Cervantes could rely.

I was talking to We’ve Got Heart’s Kristen H. about the book, and she brought up The Alchemist. I found The City and the Mountains to be a better book overall, with a stronger plot and much better prose, while also offering a powerful message, one with both mundane and spiritual elements.

Next up: Our friend Joe Posnanski’s The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America, still just $5.99 hardcover at amazon.com.

The Alchemist.

Paolo Coelho’s The Alchemist is subtitled “A Fable About Following Your Dream,” and within the context set out by the author – that this is a fable, and not a traditional novel – it’s good.

The linear plot revolves around a shepherd boy who meets with a mystical man who implies that he is a physical manifestation of the Soul of the World and encourages the boy to pursue his life’s purpose, which involves a trip to the pyramids and a search for treasure. Along the way, the boy meets an Englishman who seems to be on a similar quest but for the wrong reason, a girl who appears to him to be his soulmate, and the title character, whose skill in alchemy is secondary to his wisdom about our “Personal Legends” and the vicissitudes of life.

The Alchemist has a strong religious component, and all I’ll say about it is that if you’re opposed to religion, the book will be a tough read because belief in God and in a purpose in the universe underpins the entire story. Coelho is clearly engaging in a bit of magical realism here, doing so within the context of a sort of ecumenical theism. Whether The Alchemist is a self-help book in addition to a work of fiction is a subject I will avoid here.

As a straight novella, the book works well because the main character develops. The Alchemist struck me as a straightforward example of how to structure a short novel: The main character is on a quest or journey with a clear endpoint, and encounters obstacles along the way that help him grow emotionally while providing tension and moving the plot forward. Coelho could have extended some of the tense moments to enhance the reading experience, and probably should have, since I estimated that the book clocks at under 50,000 words, a shade short of what’s required to build the crescendo I expect in a typical novel.

My main complaint with the book was that the translation came off a bit stilted. It’s possible that Coelho’s language is just choppy, but my instinct says that it was translated too literally, and it gives some of the narration a trite feeling that, at the least, couldn’t have been intended. Quick reads, which any 167-page book should be, need smooth prose to succeed, and The Alchemist didn’t deliver that.

Next up: Having started and dispatched a Wodehouse book en route to Baltimore on Friday, I’m now about a third of the way through Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits, another of the great works in the tradition of magical realism novels from Latin America.