IN the woods west of Amsterdam, between the dunes of the North Sea shoreline and the vast floral-industrial greenhouses where world-famous hypercolour tulips are grown, there is a small working village of intellectuals. Current residents include experts on forgotten medieval cities, a team of linguists attempting to reconstruct the earliest human language, a German philosopher, a former adviser to Russian president Vladimir Putin and the novelist David Mitchell, who recently arrived to begin research for a new book.
THE first I ever heard of Rodolfo Walsh was when I read Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine in 2007. By that time, Walsh had been dead for 30 years, but Klein cited him as a posthumous source for her treatise on “disaster capitalism”, and introduced him in the most dynamic terms: “A gregarious Renaissance man, a writer of crime fiction and award-winning short stories … a super sleuth able to crack military codes and spy on the spies.”
WITH Bellow, Vonnegut, Mailer, and Updike all recently departed, Philip Roth is now supposed to be the last living giant of American literature. Roth’s late productivity has become an ongoing wonder of the publishing world, his sustained priapic raging a rebuke to every author and pensioner who has ever gone quietly into decline. At 76, he continues to cast the indignities of old age into one livid fiction after another, as if writing could dispel them, although some have noted that each of these senescent novels has been slighter and weaker than the one before.
IT has taken Michael Ondaatje seven years to write his new novel Divisadero. It took him eight to write his last one, Anil’s Ghost, having been made famous by the one before that, The English Patient, which won the Booker prize and then several Oscars when Anthony Minghella adapted it into an auspicious motion picture. The long delays between novels may partly be caused by Ondaatje finding other things to write and do in the meantime.
THERE are books about Seamus Heaney and “the crisis of identity”, Heaney and “the impress of Dante”, Heaney and “imagination and the sacred”, but there are no straight biographies available for the casual reader, even though Heaney has more of such readers than any other living poet – his titles now make up two-thirds of sales in that depressed market. Famous Seamus himself has said he likes it this way, and would prefer his life story to go unwritten “until after”, when he’s under the very dirt which has inspired so much of his work. As for his own memoirs, there may be no need for Heaney to put down in prose what’s already there in the poetry.
TOKYO is plagued by crows. They are thieves and murderers, stealing the eggs of meeker birds and biting through high-speed internet cables. Walking through Ueno Park to meet David Peace this morning, I watch one of them drag a plastic bag of food away from a sleeping homeless man. There is another screaming on a bare branch outside Peace’s office in Nezu, and it continues for the duration of our interview. “I actually quite like them,” says Peace.
WHAT other novelists refer to as research, Richard Price calls “hanging out”. Most often, this means spending time with police officers in and around New York, whose experience tends to have a direct bearing on the stories that Price chooses to tell. For the sake of specificity, he may also need to sit in on staff meetings with local restaurant managers and community outreach workers – as he did for his latest novel, Lush Life – or to participate in drug deals on dark corners of certain housing projects, if only as an observer.
AT A shrine, in a forest, on a mountain in Japan, a flustered young woman tries to describe the mysterious appeal of Haruki Murakami. I have mentioned his name in bars, temples and beauty spots on my way across the country to interview him in Tokyo, and the reactions have been similar. Many young Japanese say that they know Murakami’s work well, especially his pop-romantic blockbuster Norwegian Wood, which they poetically refer to as “A Forest In Norway” even though it was expressly named after the Beatles song. They love his books, but there is something about them which they find difficult to articulate in English. Murakami makes people feel strange, and strange feelings must be the hardest to put into foreign words.
BEFORE STARTING work on His Dark Materials, a trilogy of what he called “science- fantasy” novels, Philip Pullman wrote an alternative Book Of Genesis to rival God’s own creation story. In Pullman’s version, God was nothing more or less than an angel, the first sentient being. He did not make the universe, but told the younger angels that he had, pretending to an authority that he never possessed. When the more liberal of their number rebelled against his dictatorship, they were cast out of heaven. The wisest of them – Sophia, who was not mentioned in the Bible, but later found a place in the Gnostic gospels – tempted Eve to eat the forbidden fruit purely and simply because it represented knowledge, which could never be a sin.
STANDING over Pablo Neruda’s grave, a young attendant named Lorena said she wasn’t sure about any of this. The exhumation had not yet begun, and the flowerbed looked undisturbed above the poet’s burial mound at Isla Negra, just outside his former home on the rocky black volcanic coast of Chile. But court-appointed investigators had already been out to survey the site and measure the depth of the remains. Asked for her opinion on Neruda’s cause of death, Lorena told me that she didn’t know what to believe. “There’s a lot of stories, but no proof,” she said.