The Third Ear

Music, words, imagination

Fiction review: Rodrigo Fuentes – Trout, Belly Up

FuentesGuatemala’s thirty-six year civil war ended in 1996. Since then, under the eyes of UN representatives, millions of documents have been recovered detailing countless acts of genocide perpetrated by the US-backed military government. The same government, with the aid of soldiers trained by the CIA, still holds power today. The current head of state, ultra-conservative former actor Jimmy Morales, swept to power in 2016 with the campaign slogan ‘neither corrupt, nor a thief’, though subsequent scandals have rendered this claim somewhat fanciful. Illegal acquisition of land by palm oil and sugarcane companies is still a major problem, indigenous populations are often the first to suffer and rural poverty is high. As a result migration to the United States remains substantial, though much of it is undocumented.

It is a similar story throughout much of Latin America, and it goes some way towards explaining why the continent’s literature in the last few decades – from Roberto Bolaño to Valeria Luiselli to Julián Fuks – has often been concerned with displacement, disappearance, deracination. In Trout, Belly Up, Guatemalan author Rodrigo Fuentes offers a different view: the view of those who choose to remain. In doing so, he provides insights into why displacement might occur, why humans feel the need to move in their thousands to countries whose promises were exposed long ago as over-optimistic or fraudulent. But that is not his primary concern. These are stories about various types of hardship and conflict, where hardship is unending and conflict is self-perpetuating. His protagonists stick around to meet their difficulties head-on; they create tiny worlds around themselves where bizarre details become normal, where flirtatious cows walk on their hind legs and, frenzied fish turn to cannibalism.

These are tough stories. Where they differ from those of, say, Hemingway, is that the toughness is born out of necessity. The possibility of death lurks at every turn, be it death by violence, poverty or self destructive behaviour, and Fuentes’ protagonists are by turns heroic, stoic and sometimes complicit. Real people in tough situations. In that respect they perhaps owe something to Juan Rulfo’s short fiction. The occasional moments of hallucinatory clarity that ostensibly hark back to the magic realist tradition are better understood as acute, hyper-distilled observations of otherwise quotidian events – in other words, the seemingly random barrage of crises that taken together bestow individuality on a human life.

This mesh of strange beauty, boredom and violence is best exemplified in the story ‘Out Of The Blue, Perla’, in which the aforementioned pet cow becomes a sugarcane farmer’s ally in a vain resistance against an illegal land grab. The cow, Perla, takes on more human (and even divine) characteristics as the story progresses – she ‘dances’ on two legs, her gaze is knowing and coquettish, she shines ‘like a saint at Easter.’ As Perla grows more civilised and anthropomorphised, the criminals become increasingly bestial, finally committing an act of such transgressive barbarity that they effectively swap places with Perla in a kind of double-edged moral transmutation.

Another story, ‘Whisky’, concerns a recovering alcoholic, his young daughter, and the pet dog that brings them closer together. When the dog goes missing we watch through our fingers as the narrator’s life quickly begins to unravel. It is a simple premise but it is handled so assuredly by Fuentes that we remain gripped and moved up to and beyond its last sentence. It ends with an ironic, downbeat subversion of the classic Hollywood cliffhanger. The narrator slides down a sewage-filled ravine to rescue the trapped dog as his daughter waits at the top. The final sentence leaves no doubt that there is more at stake than the safety of the dog: ‘He held a hand out in front of him and waited, his heart in his mouth, terrified and full of hope for their reunion.’

With its suburban setting and self-contained narrative, ‘Whisky’ is ostensibly the odd one out. But the simultaneous terror and hope it conjures up provides an undercurrent that runs through the entire book. Whisky’s central character is the charismatic but self-destructive Mati, who also takes the starring role in ‘Dive’. A drug-fuelled diving expedition ends in near-tragedy and Mati ends the story on a plane to Miami, on the verge of death due to acute decompression sickness. For many writers a scene like this would form the centrepiece of the story, but once again Fuentes leaves us to imagine the outcome, or rather to contemplate the constant presence of horror that exists alongside the possibility of redemption.

The comparisons with Hemingway are partly down to this fine balance between redemption and existential oblivion, and partly down to the consistency and clarity of Fuentes’ artistic vision. He holds up a mirror to a masculine world – at times toxically masculine – but one in which individual women (lovers, daughters) hold immense, almost supernatural power. Sometimes they are analogues of the Virgin Mary, at others they hint at pre-Columbian deities. Mystery, fertility and carnality are scrambled together in the female characters, reflecting a world that is at once Catholic, pagan and secular. To the male gaze this mixture is confusing and intriguing. Fuentes writes about this confusion with subtle sensitivity. The protagonist in the title story is embroiled in an extramarital affair, and as the fish in his trout farm begin to die he lays the blame, if only for an instant, at the feet of his lover. He calls her a witch. She places her hands on her belly in a way that seems significant, loaded with meaning, but which he cannot understand. But ultimately he realises that he is at fault – for the death of the trout, for the wreck of his marriage – and his one wish is ‘for everything to go back to how it was before’.

Many of the stories are linked, and the device that links them is the character of Don Henrik. At times he his close – some of the stories are narrated by his step-son – and at others he is a distant, ultimately benign presence, like a moon pulling the narrative tides back and forth. Don Henrik is full of contradictions. More than any other character he appears at one with the Guatemalan landscape, a kind of patriarch and guardian, but in reality he is an interloper, a well-travelled Norwegian whose gifts to his new country include Scandinavian fish-farming techniques, smørbrød and plastic trolls.

Henrik is, among other things, a master of the art of waiting. The stories are little moments of digression and difference that occur around long periods of waiting. ‘My mother would be at home, awaiting Henrik’s return, and we’d be in a bar, awaiting God knows what,’ observes the young narrator in ‘Henrik’, the collection’s final, crushing story. These are people grown accustomed to enduring periods of time in which nothing seems to happen. They even find some satisfaction in it. That is understandable when the alternative is violent conflict. But even nothing can be frightening, and is always full of infinite possibilities. Fuentes has a rare gift for presenting those possibilities in way that is intensely revealing without being analytical.

Fuentes is rightly lauded in the Spanish-speaking literary world. He was a finalist in last year’s Gabriel Garcia Marquez Prize and has been an award-winning short story writer for more than a decade. This is his first collection in English, and huge credit must be given to Edinburgh-based Charco Press, whose mission to publish the best in new Latin American fiction has already introduced to us the talents of Luis Sagasti, Ariana Harwicz and Daniel Mella, among others. They have yet to publish a book that isn’t worth reading. Credit must also go to translator Ellen Jones – the sparse and unsentimental prose, with its occasional forays into passionate earthiness, seems to reflect perfectly the difficult political and geographical landscape from which these hugely impressive stories have grown.


music year list thing


40. Sons of Kemet – Your Queen is a Reptile

The rarest of beasts: a Mercury-nominated album that is actually rather good.


39. Toby Hay – The Longest Day

Sumptuous acoustic guitar solos in the tradition of Jansch and Fahey.


38. Jessica Risker – I See You Among the Stars 

Gently weird folkiness for fans of Sibylle Baier, Jessica Pratt or Julie Byrne


37. øjeRum – Selected Organ Works

Dronesome ambient stuff from Denmark.


36. Ezra Furman – Transangelic Exodus

A concept album with a heart; a story of change, escape and love told with some truly excellent songs.



35. Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks – Sparkle Hard

This will do until David Berman (allegedly) releases a new album next year.


34. Cunning Folk – Constant Companion

George Hoyle made the best version of Matty Groves this century, and tonnes more great folk music. I reviewed this one for Folk Radio, and you can read my ramblings here.


33. Paula Rae Gibson and Kit Downes – Emotion Machine

For anyone who thinks contemporary vocal jazz is dull or emotionally stifled, this will utterly destroy you. Another one I reviewed. 


32. Frog – Whatever We Probably Already Had It

Short but sweet – barely even an EP – but its best tracks deliver on the promise of their excellent debut.


31. Crisman – Crisman Tape

Crisman made a tape and tapes are good. Of the millions of under-the-radar lo-fi bedroom-pop releases this year, this one stayed with me more than most.


30. Accü – Echo The Red

Accü had an umlaut. Simultaneously very krauty and very Welsh.


29. Furrow Collective – Fathoms

Another end of year list, another album featuring Alasdair Roberts.


29. Go-Kart Mozart – Mozart’s Mini-Mart

Quite possibly the best thing Lawrence has done since the demise of Felt.


28. Xylouris White – Mother

In which one of the finest drummers in the world teamed up with a startlingly innovative Cretan laouto player and did some weird shit.


27. Dizzy Fae – Free Form (mixtape)

The freshest, most interesting R&B release of the year.


26. Mount Eerie – Now Only

Phil Elverum did it again. Pretty much everything I said about his last record (which topped my end of year list last time round) still stands.


25. SLEEPARCHIVE – Spring Flowers

Danish producer catalogued some flowers, minimal piano/ambient techno style.


24. Idris Ackamoor and the Pyramids – An Angel Fell

Idris Ackamoor is saving the planet with wild jazz. Who knows why? Maybe he’s preparing us all for the return of Sun Ra.


23. Gabby’s World – Beast On Beast

Gabby’s World is much more fun than yours. The starlet of the bedroom pop scene hits her songwriting stride here.


22. Little Kid – Might As Well With My Soul

Folky, lo-fi Canadian sad-pop that somehow made a sort of musical Venn diagram outta Sparklehorse and Radiohead.


21. Jenny Hval – The Long Sleep EP

An EP rather than an album, but as it’s considerably longer than the Tierra Whack record i couldn’t leave it out. Here Hval got visceral and droney. Even more so than usual.


20. Tuomo Väänänen – A Small Flood

Third and final Nordic minimal techno album on the list. Chilly and hugely evocative, as you’d expect.


19. Grouper – Grid of Points

Liz Harris doing what she does best. Miniature, intimate internal landscapes. Often eerie, always beautiful.


18. SOPHIE – Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides

The record on which SOPHIE finally emerged from the vocal anonymity of her earlier work and transcended the PC Music blueprint she helped create.


17. Tirzah – Devotion

This is pop at its most minimal, R&B at its most stripped-back, electronic music at its most heartfelt. Tirzah is well on her way to reinventing the whole notion of singing pop songs.


16. The Internet – Hive Mind

In a year when many of the best albums held a bit back, The Internet were refreshingly maximalist. Hive Mind is buzzing with ideas.


15. Frankie Cosmos – Vessel

Greta Kline squeezes a lot in. The doyen of the second generation of New York’s anti-folk scene has something like fifty releases under her belt, and keeps up a hectic touring schedule (she stole the show at this year’s Green Man with a set that included a joyous cover of Abba’s Mamma Mia), and Vessel is her strongest album yet.


14. Christina Vantzou – No. 4

I’ve done a lot of writing this year, and Brussels-based composer/producer Vantzou provided the soundtrack to a great deal of it. The individual tracks are like the musical equivalent of Calvino’s imagined cities or the strange, tiny, infinite worlds of Borges.


13. Hen Ogledd – Mogic

A thrilling, unexpected offering from an unlikely avant-folk supergroup that had my son dancing around the kitchen on Christmas Eve.


12. Kelly Moran – Ultraviolet

Another intense, experimental collection of prepared piano pieces, building on last year’s excellent Bloodroot and occasionally adding synths courtesy of Daniel ‘OPN’ Lopatin.


11. Sales – Forever & Ever

Sales preserved their instantly recognisable sound and retained their DIY status: the Florida duo continue to self-release and self-promote. How do they manage to sound so relaxed?


10. Triathalon – Online

Triathalon sound even more relaxed than Sales. A small miracle in itself, considering they’ve recently relocated to NYC. Online is the slickest, most soulful pop album you’ll here all year.


9. Bas Jan – Yes We Jan

Serafina Steer’s latest project is a shapeshifting, dadaist punk-folk riot that sounds like the Slits crashing into the Incredible String Band’s tour bus and finding a stash of Dennis Wheatley novels and Ken Loach films.


8. Car Seat Headrest – Twin Fantasy

Not strictly a new album but a re-recording, this manages to get on to the list by sounding both new and definitive. Will Toledo has an enviable talent and this album makes his best work even better.


7. Tierra Whack – Whack World

Fifteen songs, fifteen minutes, fifteen linked videos. More ideas than most artists have in an entire career. A lot has been written about Whack World. Maybe just listen to it. It won’t take long, but it does become addictive.


6. Oly Ralfe – Notes From Another Sea

The best piano music of the year. Initially comes across like the ghost of Satie, but Ralfe’s innate grasp of melody is all his own.


5. Eric Chenaux – Slowly Paradise

Soaring, wobbly, entirely original balladic guitar-and-voice compositions. Calling Chenaux a singer-songwriter doesn’t do him any kind of justice.


4. Low – Double Negative

Low somehow keep getting better. This time it’s a full-on reinvention: some very impressive songs stuffed beneath a double duvet of muffling electronic distortion. The result is a challenging, new type of music.


3. Princess Chelsea – The Loneliest Girl

That rare thing – an unabashedly pop album that is unabashedly full of intelligent songwriting. The New Zealand singer explores gender and age roles, the difficulties of being a musician in the twenty-first century, the brilliance of the E Street Band and the importance of manual labourers. All the while her musical palate ranges from Madonna at her mid-80s pomp to grungy distortion to twinkling chamber-pop.


=1. Julia Holter – Aviary

This album more than any other embodies the spirit of our times – a chaotic, sprawling double LP, fringes with dissonant borders and impossible to pin down into any category. But while it reflects a cynical world, listening to it is far from a cynical experience. Melody laps gently at its dark edges. There are frequent pools of calm and explosions of raucous wit. Aviary stares wide-eyed at its own musical power, and at the power of art in the world. Holter is perhaps the most important musical artist we have right now.


=1. Wished Bone – Cellar Belly

I couldn’t split my two favourite albums this year, mainly because they are two entirely different art forms. It would be like comparing Raymond Carver to Robert Musil, or Gwen John to Cy Twombly. Cellar Belly is an intensely personal, entirely lo-fi listening experience. There seems to be nothing to it, but you can lose whole afternoons to its charms. It passes by in seconds, a bright fuzz, half-awake. Melodies sneak in and energise your listening brain like vivid hypnic jerks. And it’s all achieved with a couple of chords and Ashley Bone’s voice.





Book review: Patrick Modiano – Sleep of Memory

Ghosts are a species of repetition, and repetition can cause fear in two distinct ways. There is the fear of monotony, of unchangingness, of being stuck in an eternal loop; this is essentially the fear of death, because death is the end of growth and the end of difference. Then there is the fear, apparently contradictory, of the other. This is subtle but palpable. It counts among its many faces the type of fear that is derived from what we call the uncanny – by doppelgängers, by the recognisable rendered weird by slight change. Doubling, when that doubling is imperfect. The surprise of something dead returning to life. We are doomed – the word doomed itself is always used to provoke fear – to repeat, and when we repeat we essentially become ghosts of ourselves, and often meet and part from the other ghosts on their own repetitive rounds.

Paris is a city of haunted repetitions.

Patrick Modiano’s whole body of writing is a series of haunted repetitions. Here is an extract from Sleep of Memory, his first new book to be published in English since he won the 2014 Nobel:

We entered the botanical gardens and followed the path to the zoo. The little boy ran ahead of us, then turned around and ran back, pretending to escape from invisible pursuers; sometimes he ducked behind a tree trunk. I asked if he was her son. Yes. Was she married? No. She lived alone with her boy. In short, we had found each other again six years later in the same street where we’d first met, but it didn’t seem as if any time had passed. On the contrary, it had stopped, and our first encounter was recurring, with a variation: the presence of a child. And we would meet yet again, in that same street, as the hands of a watch come together every day at noon and midnight. Moreover, on the evening when I’d met her for the first time, at the occult bookstore on Rue Geoffroy-Saint-Hilaire, I had bought a book whose title had struck me: The Eternal Return of the Same.

The references here and elsewhere in the novel to the occult are a new and important addition to Modiano’s work. In older books the occult is hinted at, here it is discussed more openly. The rest, though, is pure Modiano. The mysterious relationships between characters, the returns, the subtle variations, the coalescence of past, present and, in this case, future (we feel the boy, escaping from imaginary but sinister agents, is in some way implicated in the larger picture, though he does not yet know it). And of course there is Paris, a city whose streets, in Modiano’s world, can be read like a palimpsest – remove one layer of its history and there is another, whose meaning is maddeningly and satisfyingly familiar, always a little out of reach.

To label Modiano as an author who writes about memory is both true and restrictive. It leads on to accusations of nostalgia that couldn’t be farther from the truth. There is no comfort in remembering: Modiano’s past is a past of pain, uncertainty and, concretely, crime. As Thomas J. Millay wrote in a recent and illuminating review of Sleep of Memory (LARB, 2018), ‘Modiano remembers only to forget, or remembers only to enable forgetting’.

Forgetting, or partial memory, is the mother of the haunted repetitions that trickle through Modiano’s work. Sleep of Memory‘s title provides a clue here: sleep implies a change of state, even a temporary loss of memory, its distortion through interruption and through dream. The mystery of dream, the combinations, endless combinations of years of human connections described or implied, the crimes committed or imagined (and the Damoclean sword of potential capture), the melancholy that, as Millay writes, is ‘formulated with precision’, these are the things that bring us back to Modiano, so that we end up haunting his texts, another of his infinite band of ghosts.


Silence is the key to living in a large city: the ability to find silence or, if you can’t find it, to imagine it successfully. Silence enables you to take stock, to catalogue your past, as Modiano does in all of his novels. It allows small details space. Things rise to the surface. New characters emerge. Old characters turn up in unexpected places. Plot is the noise that happens after these silences have dredged up their secrets.

Silence in Sleep of Memory is, unusually for Modiano, embodied in a human character: Madeleine Péraud. She is an occultist whose house is a kind of oasis of silence. Even her doorbell is ‘spindly, muted’, and she exudes a kind of calm only seen in misguided and entirely confident spiritualists. The section of the novel in which she questions the protagonist (it’s difficult to refrain from referring to him simply as ‘Modiano’) is the strangest of passages, a lucid dream in prose, stilted and uncomfortable, somehow removed from the outside world. Her questions are like air bubbles in the silence, and when they burst they allow the distorted air of the past to swirl into the room. The protagonist suspects he has been hypnotised. The reader comes to form a similar suspicion.


The front cover of the Yale Margellos edition of Sleep of Memory contains a small black and white photograph by Fred Van Schagen of one of the many bridges of Paris. The clean, semi-circular arch frames a human silhouette (a silhouette is itself a haunted image – the familiar shape made mysterious or unknowable by the tricks of darkness and light). At first glance, the figure under the bridge appears to be a single person. On closer inspection it reveals itself as a couple in an ambiguous embrace. They are lit from behind – the background is almost white. They look like an image from a Rorschach test, except that the symmetry is just off. It is an invitation to interpret, a challenge, before we even open the book, to convert the symbolic into the real. The man and the woman. Doubling, joining, perhaps parting.

Look harder at the photograph and you will notice another couple, further away and appearing much smaller, walking along the Seine. Is it another couple, or the same couple at a different time? Which is the ghost couple and which is the original? This is a mystery, like all of Modiano’s mysteries, that leads only to further mysteries.


Album review: Keiron Phelan – Peace Signs

The songs on Peace Signs take their time. They’re not long, but it feels almost like they are evolving as you listen. In New Swedish Fiction (which sounds a bit like a meeting of minds between Neil Hannon and Richard Hawley) unexpected rhymes – ‘new Swedish fiction’/’estuary diction’ – emerge over time to catch you by surprise. The title track channels a Stuart Staples-esque vocal and a prettily melancholic piano arrangement to create a quietly moving monument to a relationship.

Slapp Happy, Robyn Hitchcock and Andy Partridge are touchstones in the wonderful Satellite Hitori, the album’s lead single and as sunny a piece of off-kilter chamber pop as you could wish for, while Song For Ziggy is like the Ram-era McCartney at his most fun.

Although Peace Signs is decidedly more song-based than much of Phelan’s recent work, it’s not without its neoclassical flourishes or moments of sonic experimentation: a disarming flutter of flutes here, a beautiful, breathless harp there. There are nods to his love of Japanese music (the evocative Mother to Daughter Poem) as well as that rich vein of English songwriting that runs from Ray Davies, through Martin Newell to more recent artists like David Jaycock.

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Phelan’s supporting cast is extensive and impressive, and includes highly-regarded harpist Brona McVittie, Dollboy supremo Oliver Cherer and former Hefner multi-instrumentalist Jack Hayter. This explains how he can go from bustling Americana instrumentals (the imaginatively titled Country Song, which is not unlike Bob Dylan’s soundtrack work) to sinuous chamber-folk songs based on Chaucer and sung in Middle English (Canterbury).

Long-term fans of Phelan’s work with littlebow, State River Widening and Smile Down Upon Us will be aware of the breadth of his influences and the diverse scope of his output. What is so impressive about Peace Signs is how he has managed to condense his preoccupations into a coherent and immediately accessible set of songs without jettisoning any emotional or melodic freight. It is by turns fun and moving, and always exceptionally executed.

Peace Signs is out now on Gare du Nord

Photograph by Angela Coniam

A Good Day For Music, A Bad Day For Everything Else

Hannah Diamond – one-time PC Music breadwinner – today released her first proper new single in two years. Contrary to what many people expected (and, perhaps, hoped for) it is a cool, understated ballad about the natural end of things, about distance, disappointment, the faint possibility of renewal. It’s not a brash Charli XCX/GFOTY-style banger, it’s not overly blippy, glitchy, wonky. It’s not ironic. Not even Alanis-ironic. It’s vulnerable, wary: a frozen, starving urban fox of a song. It gives up its secrets unwillingly. Listening to it feels like accidently tapping someone’s phone. Of course, it’s a very good song. But in the weird world it feels like more than that: like an immensely personal statement that somehow applies to us all. Diamond asks: what do we do when hope ends? We listen, because we don’t know the answer, and because we trust music, we trust art to find a way to bring things back from the dead.

Also today, Hen Ogledd released their latest album. And, strangely for a band so steeped in the ancient and the eldritch, it sounds every bit as new as the Hannah Diamond single. Where Diamond chronicles the loss of hope in a bizarre digital end-time, Hen Ogledd leave clues – cryptic, often bonkers clues – as to where hope might remain. The answer is: in the deepest darkest corners of strained human minds and in twisted landscapes. Hope and creativity are like water: they find the smallest holes, and form immense underground lakes.

Book review: Carla Maliandi – The German Room

Exile is in some ways a return to ignorance, or to innocence. A foreigner in a new country must start from the beginning, learn the rules all over again. Where can I buy bread? What do these buttons do? When does the recycling get collected? How do I get hold of a pregnancy test? But a new start promises certain freedoms, second chances. The exile has licence to create herself anew, to show off a new and improved human being to a new and improved world.

Or at least that’s what the narrator of The German Room thinks when she comes to Heidelberg. Her goal, if she has one, is to put some space between her and her past. This is a physical task as much as an existential one: she wants to move away from what her own body was, what it did in Buenos Aires. In concrete terms, she wants to escape the fallout of a broken relationship.

But exile, even a seemingly simple self-exile-as-self-help, is always subtler than it appears. We soon learn that Heidelberg is not entirely new to the narrator: she lived there for the first few years of her life, as part of a wholly different kind of exile, a political one. So her escape is really a return. Why then does she choose Heidelberg over all the other cities in the world? It might simply be because we rarely know exactly what we want in life, and it is good, sometimes, to rely on the admittedly well-worn safety-net of history.

History often catches up with you, or comes around to meet you face to face. Very early, we learn that the narrator is pregnant, and that the father could be one of two men, both in Buenos Aires. Maliandi is excellent on the emotions of the mother-to-be: pregnancies in literature are usually either wanted or unwanted, but in this case a whole spectrum of feeling is explored. The situation is both complex and simple, real and surreal. And crucially, while pregnancy always exists in the narrative, this is not necessarily a book about pregnancy. Maliandi reminds us that there are other things a woman can do while being pregnant, that women don’t stop being women.

One of the first people the narrator meets is Argentine student, Miguel Javier. Their friendship, though never entirely equal, develops quickly, as is often the case when two people with shared cultural backgrounds meet in a new place. We are introduced to Marta Paula, Miguel Javier’s troubled sister back in Tucumán, and through her we come to know a clairvoyant, a modern-day witch called Feli. Although she never appears physically and her words are always related through the telephone conversations between Marta Paula and the narrator, Feli casts a strange light over the novel. She might be the spirit of Argentina, full of religiosity and superstition, in comparison with modern, enlightened, secular Germany. Is it too much to suggest that she might even represent the Eurocentric view that South American literature has little to offer other than magic realism?

If that is the case, then perhaps the novel’s German setting is a reference to the works – almost a sub-genre – of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in which certain European cities and towns became places of rest and repair for writers. Katherine Mansfield’s first collection, In A German Pension, springs to mind (and not just because of the similarity between the titles), but there was a distinct trend for this kind of literature. It could be argued that this trend was still going strong when Anita Brookner won the 1984 Booker for Hotel Du Lac.

One of the things Maliandi does so well is to combine those disparate cultures, both thematically and stylistically: her prose balances passion and lucidity, it is informed by history (or several histories) but is never too self-consciously literary. Her sense of place is highly attuned and she is able to pin down a whole nation’s contradictions in one terse, unforgiving phrase (Germany is a ‘repulsively perfect country’). It is a new, uncompromising kind of writing, even down to its treatment of contemporary technology. Indeed, the technology of communication is almost a character in itself – the narrative wouldn’t be possible without the phone calls between Germany and Argentina, conducted on a phone that had been owned by a Japanese student who committed suicide earlier in the story.

The German Room is a quiet masterpiece of unconventionality, but that’s not to say Maliandi doesn’t do the conventional stuff brilliantly. She draws her characters expertly: the damaged, fierce, brittle Mrs Takahashi is particularly vivid. And her handling of human relationships – most of all those between men and women – is subtle and illuminating. The narrator’s friendship with Miguel Javier ebbs and flows; at first their connection is one of necessity – two Spanish speakers in a German world – but it becomes something much more nuanced, a relationship fraught with ambiguity, unrequited attraction and cruelty tempered by genuine affection and moments of reconciliation.

The novel’s strange, striking last few pages have the effect of making the reader question the veracity of everything the narrator has said, but also raise the possibility of happiness, or at least closure. This section begins with the delightfully misleading statement, ‘My last few days in Heidelberg were uneventful.’ It is typical of Maliandi’s ability to wrong-foot you with the most straightforward language, to combine reality and fantasy with enviable ease.

The German Room is the tenth book to be published by Edinburgh’s Charco Press (who publish Latin American fiction in translation), and the fifth I have read. They have all been excellent. Their work is a timely reminder that writing from that corner of the world is so much more than Isabel Allende or Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Album review: Paula Rae Gibson/Kit Downes – Emotion Machine

In 1964 one of Europe’s most accomplished jazz singers recorded an album with America’s most inventive pianist. It was a strange recording – a mixture of American standards and Swedish folk and pop songs – but in its strangeness lies its appeal, because Waltz For Debby by Monica Zetterlund and Bill Evans showed that the experimental could be palatable, that the weird could be smuggled in under a coat of pretty songs.

Of course, experimentation in 2018 looks a lot different to experimentation in 1964, even in the apparently narrow realm of vocal jazz collaboration. But while the results may be different, the drive to create musical forms that are both novel and enduring remains. It is this creative drive that shapes the new album by singer Paula Rae Gibson and composer/instrumentalist Kit Downes. Gibson is a singularly expressive vocalist – opening track Still distills the breathiness of classic vocal jazz, reducing its phrasing to something that approaches spoken word while Downes’ free-form backdrop resembles a more spacious Arthur Russell.

Piano-based tracks like Strange Dream or Black Hole further dissolve the boundaries of jazz, classical music and even post-rock. Gibson is inspired by Icelandic music, and this shows through in the monochrome shades and icy feel of some of these songs. The overall feeling is one of encroaching darkness and uncertainty. Gibson’s voice on Love On Time (a title which itself both references and undermines classic jazz/blues tropes) becomes an androgynous echo of itself. The whole album, right down to its title, concerns itself with unpredictability, apprehension, dichotomy. Human and machine. Physical and emotional love. Female and male. Seemingly incompatible things are played off against each other, or are put together in uneasy, itchy combinations which dare themselves not to work, but always do. Love is a constant theme, love and all the strange angles we come at it from, all the bits of mess that surround it like trust and bodies and death.

Emotion Machine is an extraordinary album. For every otherworldly throb or passage of avant-garde dissonance there is a moment of human closeness. You meet a man, you fall in love, you get a house, reproduce, as Gibson sings on closing track Brave. The things that singers have been singing about for the last hundred years or more. But rarely have those themes sounded more urgent or more passionate.