Paperback reviews: Red or Dead, The Hunting Gun, Under a Croatian Sun, Pleasures and Landscapes, Golden Parasol a Daughter’s Memoir of Burma

 

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The Independent Culture

Red or Dead, by David Peace (Faber £8.99)

In The Damned United (2006), David Peace’s superb fictional account of Brian Clough’s brief tenure in charge of Leeds United in the early 1970s, he has his protagonist reflect on the nature of his preoccupation with the sport: “You believe in football,” Clough tells himself, “in the repetition of football; the repetition within each game, within each season ….”

Bill Shankly, the hero of Peace’s ambitious follow-up, Red or Dead, would no doubt share those sentiments. For Shankly, as for Clough, football represents a kind of mythic, repetitive struggle; every new season, every new game, is a renewed effort to push the boulder up the mountain.

The novel traces Shankly’s career as manager of Liverpool from 1959 to 1974, during which time he transformed the club from also-rans to serial trophy winners. A poignant coda follows Shankly in retirement, looking on as his successor, Bob Paisley, wins the European Cup – the holy grail – with the team he built.

Peace’s approach, like his subject’s, is meticulous and obsessive; he writes in a stylised prose that echoes the rhythms of the game, his verbs hunting in threes: “Liverpool Football Club attacked and attacked and attacked. Liverpool Football Club defended and defended and defended.”

The book lacks the dramatic intensity and humour of The Damned United, yet the detailed descriptions of Shankly’s day-to-day management – which, as Peace demonstrates, was informed by socialist principles – have a great cumulative power.

Some may baulk at the near-hagiographic tone; the earnestness with which Peace associates sport with the human struggle against mortality. To which the author might rejoin with the great man’s famous phrase: football isn’t a matter of life and death – it’s far more important than that.

The Hunting Gun, by Yasushi Inoue (Pushkin Press £10)

Yasushi Inoue was one of 20th-century Japan’s most prolific and garlanded authors, but few of his works are available in English. The London-based publisher, Pushkin Press, is helping to remedy this by bringing out a series of handsome new editions. Inoue’s debut, The Hunting Gun, was first published in 1949. This astonishingly poised and psychologically acute novella tells the story of a doomed love affair between Saiko, a divorcee, and Misugi, her sister’s husband. Like Inoue’s other early novella, Bullfight, this is both a compelling drama and an oblique philosophical exploration into the essential “solitude of the human condition”. A recurring conceit — the “snake” of sin that Misugi insists lies in every human heart – would seem to speak to the national soul-searching in post-war Japan. In a self-deprecating afterword, written late in his career, Inoue laments the novella’s “very green” narrative technique and the “youthful ungainliness” of the whole. If that’s true, then this is surely the most elegantly ungainly story ever penned.

Under a Croatian Sun, by Anthony Stancomb (John Blake £7.99)

After he retired, Anthony Stancomb and his wife Ivana decided to up sticks from Fulham to the Croatian isle of Vis. This memoir describes the couple’s experiences in their new home: from the pleasures of swimming each morning in the Adriatic to the frustrations of dealing with irascible locals. To his credit, Stancomb resists the stereotype of the closed-minded British expatriate: he is curious about the island’s (often tragic) recent history and learns the local language and customs. Nevertheless, his writing reveals a somewhat provincial, Alan Partridge-esque frame of reference: “Karmela’s face resembled one of those fierce-looking Medusa masks you see on wall-mounted fountains in garden centres of the Home Counties.”

Pleasures and Landscapes, by Sybille Bedford (Daunt Books £9.99)

Sybille Bedford, who died in 2006, has been hailed as one of the great travel writers of the 20th century; Bruce Chatwin named her as one of the form’s most “dazzling practitioners”. This book collects pieces recounting her jaunts around Europe between the 1940s and the 1970s: we find her dining with Martha Gellhorn in post-war Capri; driving around Tito’s Yugoslavia; marvelling at Denmark’s nascent welfare state. The centrepiece is “The Quality of Travel”, an account of a trip around France that loses its way amid some rather extravagant celebrations of the country’s food and wine. And yet this irrepressible delight in sensuous pleasure is one of Bedford’s most endearing qualities as a writer.

Golden Parasol a Daughter’s Memoir of Burma, by Wendy Law-Yone (Vintage £9.99)

Wendy Law-Yone’s father, Ed, was a newspaper editor in Rangoon. A year after Burma’s military coup in 1962 he was imprisoned for criticising the generals, and his wife and children fled into exile. He later joined them in the US but continued to agitate for democracy in his homeland. He died disappointed. In this fine book Wendy recounts Ed’s eventful life, weaving in the story of her own journey home to Burma in 2011 as the country began, slowly, to open up. Along the way she offers a moving account of the pain of exile and an eloquent defence of the importance of a free press. Her descriptions of Burmese landscapes, meanwhile, are gorgeous: vivid and precise, and awash in remembered sunlight.

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