The Paul Street Boys (Ferenc Molnar)
Apparently this book is famous, not that I’ve heard of it. Not until a year ago when a couple of Hungarian graffiti artists (bloody Hungarians, coming over ‘ere, spray-painting our walls) painted a mural dedicated to the book near my place of work. I went, took a photo, posted it on Instagram (oh yeah), but just like Rebekah “who spells it that way, anyway?” Vardy, I had no idea as to the nature of the content…apart from my Hungarian wife (bloody Hungarians, coming over ‘ere, marrying me) telling me it was a famous book.
Turns out that mural had some purpose, however. There has been a recent update to the translation published this year in an attempt to bring it to a new generation (like me: “The 36 year-olds”); the original translation perhaps a little out of date now – it’s well over a century old – the Hungarian version, at least.
Well, what of it? Well, it’s a satirical look at the nature of war, as played out by two gangs of schoolboys. The Paul Street Boys, naturally, lord it over the “grund”, a piece of land with some woodpiles and a watchman, that isn’t much good for anything other than being a decent enough football pitch. The boys are allowed to run free here, but a rival gang based in Budapest’s Botanical Gardens – less football-suitable – want the land as their own for a kick-about.
War is declared, but there must be rules to this. The two leaders agree the nature of battle, before preparing their armies. There is reconnaissance, strategic planning, betrayal and colds before the final battle, which ultimately ends in tragedy, as well as a cruel twist thrown in by Molnar in the most nonchalant of manners. The whole event was a futile and childish game. War leaves no victors.
Molnar creates a military world within a childish game, each boy within the group playing their own war role: the fearless leader, the traitor, the power struggle and the valiant hero. There is humour and sadness, but also a childish game made adult.
Well, an EIGHT HUNGARIAN BOOKS YOU MUST READ BEFORE YOU DIE! article included this as an eighth, which, added to Magda Szabo’s “The Door”, Antal Szerb’s “Journey by Moonlight” and Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s “Satantango“, means that I am halfway to dying a satisfying Hungarian death of goulash, but I am yet to reach for the tokaji.
- Days to read: 9
- Days per book: 14.4
Adrian Mole: The Prostrate Years (Sue Townsend)
I’ve reached the end! I’ve completed all eight volumes of the trials and tribulations or Herr Mole. No more, because Sue Townsend went and died.
Late Thirties and married with another child, Adrian is in a very sorry state. He is still a failed author, working in a second hand bookshop with a daughter who doesn’t care much for him, a son in Afghanistan and a wife getting fatter and more drunk with each passing day.
To add to matters, he discovers, after monitoring his toilet visits, that he has prostate cancer. Treatment makes him ill and the bookshop has to close for business. This pushes his wife over the edge and into the bed of her employer, leaving him seemingly alone and waiting to die.
In (slightly) older and more reflective years, again the diary entries are longer than the younger days, but despite his lot, his approach to life is still the same, though he now has an excuse for being useless. Not that anyone has any sympathy for him.
But these are not separate books, but rather an extension across close to three decades of life. Despite all the changes, he is still the same man throughout. Despite everything seemingly going against him: terminal illness, separated, unemployed, heavily in debt, he leaves us quietly happy with his lot.
So, now I can say I’ve read all there is to Adrian Mole…but I’ve not got a T-shirt, or been to the musical. That’s not for me.
- Days to read: 12
- Days per book: 14.4
The Fourteen Carat Car (Jeno Rejto)
This was bought for me as a double-header birthday gift along with the aforementioned “The Paul Street Boys” by my solely-Hungarian-speaking in-laws. Naturally, it was an English translation. But to start, it may as well have been written in Hungarian. Billed as being written before Ian Fleming’s James Bond books, back in 1940, this isn’t so much a novel regarding an international man of mystery as madness on a page.
Gorchev, our hero, starts by “winning” a Nobel Prize on a ship from England to France, before hiring a right-hand-man at random and creating anger in everyone he comes across along the French south coast. Picking fights and falling in love at will, he declares he will join the Foreign Legion to prove himself an honourable man and win the approval of his love’s father. But not before doing this and that and the other.
The pace of this is frenetic, with so much happening in what is not exactly a long novel. But that’s where the madness, and indeed the humour, come in. The fact that the sheer pace and brash audacity of Gorchev is too much to take in, make this book as witty as it is mad, and could be deemed terrible or terrific. And while it is a lot to take in – and can maybe be difficult to keep up with by the end (or indeed, just lose its own way) – this is certainly entertaining and humourous throughout.
The influence can be seen on the likes of Alan Shearman’s Bullshot character, among others, and is perhaps the best “Carry On…” script never written.
- Days to read: 10
- Days per book: 14.4
Tokyo Ueno Station (Yu Miri)
Yu Miri’s “Tokyo Ueno Station” is (one of) the latest in a line of Japanese popular fiction that are certainly filling the “Top 10” shelves in London book shops, following the likes of Hiromi Kawakami’s “Strange Weather in Tokyo” and Sayaka Murata’s “Convenience Store Woman”. These books are light, crisp and breezy and entertaining enough, though are perhaps more on the short and sweet side of the heaviness seesaw of fiction.
Miri’s story is less light in its subject matter, not a First World problems lament, but some more depth could perhaps come along with it. Good or bad, these are books that can be devoured quickly and serve as light refreshment from heavier works. And that is always necessary and good. But, as such, they may never sneak over the line to be described as “literature”. Though I’m probably being a bit harsh and Radio 4 about this.
Kazu, now homeless in Ueno Park, has lived a life with various similarities to the Emperor: born in the same year, having a child born at the same time, as well as their lives crossing along the way. But obviously, Kazu’s life hasn’t quite gone the same way. Spending his time away from his family due to work, he becomes detached from them, his son dying young and becoming estranged from his wife. The book, therefore, is a collection of laments, mixed with social comment at the current situation with Tokyo’s homeless as the Olympic Games loom. Indeed, many films and books approach the Olympics with a sense of apprehension as the powers that be look to “clean up” the city.
There are some moments of brilliant writing that draw you in and capture you, such as Kazu’s experience of his son’s funeral. But as the book switches between time and location, it can be somewhat inconsistent, and maybe a little lacking as a satisfactory whole. This isn’t the same light affair as the aforementioned works – though will perhaps fit alongside them in recommendations – but, as you whisk through it at speed, will perhaps leave you with a similar sense of a need for a little more.
- Days to read: 7
- Days per book: 14.3
March of the Lemmings (Stewart Lee)
It’s been a couple of shows since Stewart Lee last did his footnote annotation of his own stand-up work – not since “If you Prefer a Milder Comedian, Please Ask for One”. His last book, in fact, was a collection of his written work for The Observer (when standing-in for David Mitchell): “Content Provider”.
So, with “March of the Lemmings”, he has combined the two: the first half a collection of his writings on Brexit for the Sunday paper; and the second half his annotation of his stand-up tour “Content Provider”, which is heavily Brexit-influenced. From reading, it’s fair to say that Lee is a remainer. It’s fair to say this book is aimed at me.
As he has previously made clear, there are three “Stewart Lees” at work here. The first we encounter is the actual human man, providing the introduction to the book – the same incarnation who will also write the footnotes. The second is the columnist who is aware of his own shortcomings, but still tries to write from a point of intellectual superiority. The third is the “character of Stewart Lee”, the stand-up we all know and have an opinion of.
As with “Content Provider” (the book version), the articles are always a little difficult to digest, written in the form of an alter-ego, with Lee’s knack for creating an allegory full of tangents that seems to always lose its way, but this is always the intention. Some are brilliant, some difficult, others pass by, feeling that perhaps they haven’t worked.
The highlight, however, is always the annotated notes throughout. As with “How I Escaped My Certain Fate”, these have an autobiographical quality and tell more about Lee, his career and his act than any straight autobiography can. These give the work added flavour and context which is essential with Lee’s work – his act is not one that can be taken at face value.
Always one to answer, or indeed just show, his critics, select below the line comments on the articles have been included here as well, like one of those “360 appraisals” that they have these days.
I look forward to his next show, the martial arts-themed “Taekwondo Comedian”.
- Days to read: 22
- Days per book: 14.4