Archive for Ken Barris

Houellebecq’s Lanzarote: talk about a waste of time

Posted in book, Ken Barris, review, richard kunzmann, writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 23, 2009 by richardkunzmann

I judge a book by its cover; I also judge it by its author and what he or she has written before, which is why I picked up Lanzarote, along with the rest of Houellebecq’s work, after reading that mind-blowing novel Atomised. Atomised

Except, in retrospect I should perhaps read some Amazon reviews first.

What an utterly shit book this is! I cannot express myself strong enough, more so because I feel betrayed by the standard I’ve come to expect from Houellebecq. I feel more betrayed than I did by the last two volumes of Stephen King’s Gunslinger series. We’re talking about simple trading standards here. When I buy a Mercedes I certainly don’t expect to have a Skoda dumped at my door.

LanzaroteLanzarote begins with an interesting take on the tourism industry: it’s not only about escapism; its existence is evidence of how sad we’ve become that we must flock to some destination to derive meaning from life. The protagonist’s life is utterly void of something to do, so he flies to Lanzarote without knowing exactly what he wants to do there either. On the island he meets Rudi, a police officer from Luxembourg, who also doesn’t quite know what to do with himself. Thus, two pessimists become a pair, though they aren’t particularly fond of each, and you guessed it … they don’t really know what to do around each other.

The landscape of Lanzarote, and the cheap tourist dives along its coast, come to embody that empty inner world. When the two men meet two German lesbians who are up for a straight shag with the protagonist, one gets a sense of how far reduced all their lives have become. Like hamsters in a cage, fucking in the boring expanse of sawdust, just to while away the time. Michel Houellebecq

Fine, fine, fine. I can see all that. But if you’re going to write a novel and charge me £6 for it, please just make it’s about something. A ninety page diatribe on boredom and the emptiness of our human pursuits is, well, boring. The best part of this ridiculous novella is the colour photos.

A book that is more meaningful and in a similar vein is Ken Barris’s What Kind of Child. Not the greatest, but similar themes, a similar mood of perpetual melancholy, and oh so much more readable.

And if you don’t trust me on this one, check out the ratings on Amazon and Goodreads.

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Review: What Kind of Child, Ken Barris

Posted in African fiction, book, Cain Prize, review, South Africa, South African writers, writing with tags , , , , , , , on May 5, 2009 by richardkunzmann

what-kind-of-child Ken Barris is a South African author to watch. His catalogue of literary awards attests to this: the M-Net Book Prize, the Ingrid Jonker Prize, the Sydney Clouts Award, the Vita Award, a short-listing for the Caine Prize for Writing in Africa. But listing his achievements to drum up support for What Kind of Child is entirely unnecessary. From the outset of Barris’s fourth book, one is drawn in by the plain language, the effortless vivid descriptions. The novel breaks away from stereotypical conventions that permeate much of our literature today. Yes, this novel does touch on race, crime and class, like most South African stories, but its evocation of an unattractive society consumed by alienation extends well beyond the benchmark.

The narrative loosely follows three main protagonists: Bernal Díaz del Castillo, a dying tattoo artist who believes he was once a Spanish Conquistador; Luke Turner, a self-loathing libertine with an unusual appetite for women, cooking and death; and Malibongwe Joyini, a joyless child doomed to a hopeless life as a street urchin. Through their eyes we experience an unembellished Cape Town, fraught with perpetual exhaust fumes, forgotten historical sites, and drifters. Barris’s characters come into contact with each other without ever making contact; the protagonists’ relations are rendered meaningless by their inability to fully express themselves and their histories.
The novel evokes questions about the futility of living, its essential mundanity: life and death are unremarkable in the city. Even miraculous occurrences like the appearance of pterosaurs over Table Mountain are dulled by the all-pervasive anomie.

The tale is disquieting as it is bleak, more so because there seems to be nothing of value in the future for our protagonists. It seems that the author is asking this question about South African society, even its literature: are we so shackled by our personal and social history that the future is utterly stifled? The title of the novel embodies this question in the form of a question of its own: What Kind of Child… Its implied ellipsis allows the author to explore the nature of a familiar theme, namely Destiny.

One might ask why buy a book that paints such a dismal picture of Cape Town and its inhabitants, that seemingly conveys nothing but despair. The subject matter may be dark and gloomy, but the beauty of the author’s language provides a perfect counterbalance. Barris’s writing is economic and precise; it allows the reader to read both what is stated and not stated, which creates an incredibly rich narrative. His descriptions, from tastes and smells in the kitchen, to the rasping caresses of lovers, and the minutiae of people’s faces and bodies, are remarkably sensuous – a trait which is not often evident in male writers. His words make the reader’s journey through this disquieting underworld an enjoyable experience.

ken-barris Ken Barris’s writing turns the lives of unremarkable people into a remarkable book; it moulds the ordinary into something extraordinary, and impresses upon the audience a range of emotions that linger long after the last line has been read.