The protagonist of Radio is an Estonian filmmaker heading home after a decade living in Paris. He is an oversensitive and narcissistic man, openly gay, though suffering from a somewhat shaky sense of self esteem stuck in an ongoing identity crisis: is he an Estonian or a Parisian at heart? Is he an urban dandy or rural hack? The story of an exile and a writer anatomizing aThe protagonist of Radio is an Estonian filmmaker heading home after a decade living in Paris. He is an oversensitive and narcissistic man, openly gay, though suffering from a somewhat shaky sense of self esteem stuck in an ongoing identity crisis: is he an Estonian or a Parisian at heart? Is he an urban dandy or rural hack? The story of an exile and a writer anatomizing a homeland he perhaps wishes to repudiate, Radio is the perfect introduction for English-language audiences to one of world literature’s great tricksters....
|Number of Pages||:||573 Pages|
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Re-writing the blurb: Back in his native Estonia following a decade in Paris, a documentary filmmaker is adrift and nearing forty. He is gay but several years ago also fell into a relationship with Liz Franz, a now-faded pop diva he idolised in his teens. She has recently disappeared on him, has stopped paying his way - and his own career is unsuccessful. Trying to make sense of his circumstances and direction as he grows short of funds, tentatively working on a film about the Estonian World War II resistance, and perhaps falling for a young man who lives in his new apartment block, the narrator's digressive writings about his present, his past, and his considerable knowledge of Estonian history mingle with attempts to draft a biography of Liz Franz... except there are some things he can barely bring himself to say. I can't remember when I saw a worse blurb for a contemporary novel than the paragraph on the back of Radio. I'm not usually that bothered about blurbs. And if I identify with a character created to be unlikeable, including one who's narcissistic, I'll admit it whilst knowing how annoying others find them. (e.g. Katherine in Sam Byers' Idiopathy.) So I don't think it's about denial. Also, placing 'openly gay' beside negative traits, as the real blurb does, that sounds subtly hostile. Of course there are gay people who are mean, but there are better ways to put it. Not to mention that using 'openly gay' in 2014 to refer to the character of a recent European artist (not, someone in, say, politics, sport or the military) sounds, frankly, old-fashioned. The wording may even alienate a few potential readers, or make them hesitate. Do you really want more hesitation when you're trying to sell a brick of Estonian fiction that won't have a whole lot of takers anyway?This narrator isn't any more 'oversensitive and narcissistic' than scores of lead characters in literary fiction who aren't foregrounded that way. (I think the re-blurb above still hints at those traits, a Peter Pan type living like a recent graduate for years on end for no reason.) And yeah, those are very common traits in litfic characters. So actively introducing him that way leads the reader – or me at least – to expect someone who is much worse than most: continually, deludedly grandiose, fussy and manipulative. (I wouldn't be surprised if the blurb influenced the choice of words in this bad review and this mixed review*, perhaps even the reactions themselves.) It was only because I really really liked the idea of a gay novel from Estonia that I read it despite the prospect of 600 pages of self-aggrandisement and malice: maybe a gay version of a Houellebecq protagonist, but nastier. And I was surprised that - whilst he undoubtedly has his moments - for the most part he was more interesting, more modest and self-aware than I'd ever expected. Yes, he sometimes bitchily picks fault with other people's appearance (and also with his own), but he has no illusions of his own brilliance; and his dating anxieties sound like stuff you can find on just about any forum on the internet. Though I'd think more people than not - those who don't click with the character as much, who don't share as many interests - might find him a bore as he goes on and on about local history (this novel is about one third history book, honestly, you'll get stuff in here you wouldn't in a Lonely Planet or Rough Guide, especially about Tartu, Estonia's second city), about what he's cooking, about everything around him and almost everything that happened, forever digressing. He speaks more from that fuzzy space that's a bit aspie and a bit narcissistic, where it's simply a case of being wrapped up in one's own little world rather than crowing about being important, always despising everyone else and so forth. Actually, the character who sounds most narcissistic, textbook-fashion, is Liz Franz. In alternative parlance, a classic Diva.I'd also heard that this was a terrible translation. (It's a miracle I read the novel at all, really.) The style/ translation wasn't as bad as I expected after that, but there are some very messy sentences, lack of fact/spell-checking about a few things that a European or Brit probably would have known (this is translated by an American and issued by a US publisher) and the usual typos and errors that are sadly more common than not in new books these days. It's notable, though, that the same person said it was stylistically weaker than, and somewhat different from Border State, the author's novella covering very similar ground about a gay man who's lived in both Paris and Estonia, which I haven't read. Would be great to see more GR reviews from people who've read both. (Both books were originally published under the pseudonym Emil Tode, suggesting to this information-poor English-speaker that Õnnepalu's various pseudonyms may go with certain types of book or character - almost Pessoan heteronyms.) I recently read this interview with the translator; he sounds like a nice person, and I can't be the only reader who thinks that would be a fun life. So it seems far meaner to criticise this than if he were some faceless name. I can't tell if part of the potential 'boringness' of Radio's narrator to all but the most enthusiastic readers is part of his personality as intended by the author, an unintentional part of the author's style, or an unintentional part of the translation. (And in this interview, the author says he doesn't check translations.) It's a style which does have its literary and descriptive moments, more and more so towards the end (during a long paragraph about Maria Callas - the narrator's a fan - I began to feel transported in a way I hadn't before) - improvement with practice? - but often (as I think about a lot of my posts on here) it sounds like someone who's more of a natural at writing office letters and instruction manuals than fine literature. Pretty ordinary, in other words. The short extracts in this review of another of Cullen's translations - of a different author - (his second or third full length book, this being the first AFAIK) sound similarly administrative in tone, and I have the feeling whilst reading them that a really excellent writer could use fewer words to convey the same meaning more elegantly; I hope that similarity in style when translating two different authors is an unfortunate coincidence based on a small sample. If you're interested enough in the content of Radio, this writing is fine for transmitting thoughts and information, but you're unlikely to fall into raptures over the beauty of the sentences. I ran into an almost unavoidable spoiler when skimming past a one-line Amazon review - which turned out to be incorrect. Whilst these other bits weren't huge potential spoilers the way that was, it turned out that whilst the narrator & Liz Franz sometimes refer to one another as husband and wife. they were never married. And I saw nothing to suggest that Franz herself was entirely gay outside her relationship with the narrator: she may have once had a live-in relationship with a woman, but she has had far more, and longer, attachments to men.Although there are a few bits here and there which suggest that, if contemporary terms had been available to her, her gender identification may not have been completely female. One could even read their relationship, initiated in dubious circumstances by Franz, with a lethargic and confused narrator, to have begun because of her combination of poor boundaries, old-fashioned attitudes to both consent and the significance of sexual identity, and a presumptuousness that may implicitly be similar to to some contemporary pop-culture divas' overt, unthoughtful declaration of being a gay man in a woman's body. (Failing to keep her hands to herself, or remember that that as a woman, she's [been] able to pull lots of hot straight guys she never could have as a man, straight guys like those the the gay narrator crushes on but can't get.) She becomes the resented/needed/owning person on the end of the Pet Shop Boys' exquisitely layered lyric, "I love you, you pay my rent". The narrator is a PSB fan, and whilst that line - which says so very much with a few words and their numbed delivery - is never quoted in the book, it seemed to me to hang over the whole relationship. To the narrator she is always 'Liz Franz'. Never once does she become 'Liz'. It's clear that the narrator has seen behind the public image of 'Liz Franz', but the exchange of money, his unwillingness/ambivalence and the employer-employee like relationship means that in his eyes at least, they never truly seem to be friends.Re. the Amazon 'spoiler' (and this tag does contain the biggest spoiler in the book) (view spoiler)[I am not sure if the reviewer misunderstood something by only scanning the end of the book (e.g. via mentions of AIDS which minor characters have died of) or if he is making a connection that most people would not have when the book was written c.2002 (HPV from oral sex as a factor in throat cancer. If the latter, we can't assume that she would even have got it from the narrator and not from another partner; and as no-one was worrying about that at the time, and most people still don't in that way, it's just bizarre to blame him for causing her death via a communicable disease. It could have been smoking related.) (hide spoiler)]. The incorrect spoiler made me think worse of the character than I would have had I not seen it - but because I got on with him so well otherwise, I was willing to put it down to, 'we're neither of us perfect'. The interview with the author doesn't make clear whether the narrator of Radio is supposed to be annoying or dislikeable, or to what extent. At any rate, because of the responses in the few English language reviews around, he's going in my category of characters who, whilst not outright villains, readers are not meant to like, and that I identified with and/or liked. Which doesn't mean that I agreed with absolutely everything he said (or, that, as I used to feel I should, I'll point out all the differences in case some strange person decides to make assumptions). But I experienced this book like conversations - there are dozens, maybe even 100+, post-it snippets in the pages marking things I felt like talking about, but which there's no space for here - the times when I thought he was being an idiot, or I'd want to pull him up on something or just blank it because I didn't like it (a couple were bad enough for me to think, well, you wouldn't be a close friend), were far outweighed in number by all the "Yes, I know what you mean!" and "Really? Me too!" (It's rare I read a book this length without a break of at least a day, and it's possible that made it feel fresher than if I'd read it straight through.)I never had imaginary friends as a kid (as far as I recall) but I often had - sometimes still do - imaginary conversations with real friends whilst I'm alone, thinking about what I would tell them if they were there at the time. These days, a lot of them go into emails, they're unwritten drafts basically, but there are things that obviously wouldn't, because they're of the moment, e.g. whilst cooking it might be nice to explain how to make this recipe (and have them help out), or telling them all about a place you're going through alone as if they were present - and that's exactly what I'm hearing here from the narrator. (Who shows how long-winded it would be if one did say all that stuff! I'd never really had to think about it before, because if a real person is there, you are also responding to what they say and do, not only to your own thoughts.)I wouldn't call this narrator unreliable. He is certainly reliable about history. Almost everything he says about the history tallies with what I know from other sources. (I read five other books from or about Estonia in 2015.) Only two differences: a fetishy reverie about [homo]sexuality in medieval monasteries that would be impossible to prove or disprove absolutely due to lack of evidence, and what sounded exactly like reasonable revisionist history about feudalism, and would make sense as part of a spectrum of opinion. It's just that on the subject of his own life, he has a mental block about / is temporarily in denial about one thing; he finds it easier to talk about almost anything else: 500 large, dense pages worth of almost anything else. He admits most of his own shortcomings and unpleasant sides whilst knowing they're not great, realises other people see things differently from the way he does, but has a few blind spots. I found this combination of flaws and self-awareness very human. Even best friends do and say some things we don't agree with. There probably isn't anyone on earth who could go on for nearly 600 pages and I wouldn't find at least a few things disagreeable or objectionable. The negative reviews mention only seeing other characters through the narrator's eyes: but isn't that simply one type of first-person narrative? There are those where characters are shown in rounded ways, craftily described beyond the narrator's perceptions, and there are other narratives where we experience everything via the narrator. This was okay with me because I mostly liked him (and because there are so few reviews I will probably never know just how atypical or downright weird a reaction that is). I'm not frustrated about not hearing other perspectives, as I might have been had I found him annoying. We don't generally demand that a friend try and list everything about someone they're talking about. One would assume there are other aspects to the subject's life, but they probably don't matter for the purpose of the conversation right now. I found this a very companionable book - but it's also very dense, in print, in physical texture, in content, so it is not really the comfort-reading type of companionable. It was, like I found the narrator, not an absolute best friend but one who needs a little more effort than that, still good company if making allowances for a few irritations, and certainly useful for their specialist knowledge.It's probably the influence of the magic-realist novel I'm reading whilst finishing this review, but such different things are said about Radio in English that I half wonder if there are two different versions of the text circulating...This 2007 article is the closest I've found to an opinion on the Estonian original, although it doesn't mention Radio directly:the librarians' rejoinder that the contemporary Estonian novel is too self-centred, esoteric, or obscene to be recommended to the patrons of village libraries? ... there is something in the charge of self-centeredness, since many writers have claimed, explicitly or implicitly, that the only possible way to write authentically today is to draw directly from one's own experience. Thus Tõnu Õnnepalu (b.1962) has declared in his book Harjutused (Exercises, 2002, written under the name of Anton Nigov): "In this culture, where I am and what I am, the only books that can be written are the ones in which there are no other characters except the I. Nothing but internal intuitions externally observed. Books with characters, with all kinds of uncles and cousins, their lordships, council registrars, Ivan Pavloviches and Lady N's belong to the past, to the great times of important actions. You can only rewrite these books, with minor changes. If I wish to remain honest and avoid undue copying, I have nothing to talk about except this I."Fortunately, Tõnu Õnnepalu's ‘I’ is sufficiently rich, intelligent, and clear-sighted to make his autobiographical musings and reflections on culture, daily politics, and sexuality irresistibly, even voyeuristically readable. In August 2006 the weekly Eesti Ekspress polled literary critics to identify the best authors and books after 1991. Õnnepalu, with his five books of prose and several poetry collections, written under various pen names, came in first. Although his two attempts at a traditional novel with a developed plot and elaborate set of characters were quite embarrassing, his confessional, (semi-)autobiographical texts have been highly acclaimed, and rightly so. * This good review, as well as the first half of the mixed review, sound more like the book I read.
I know so much more about Estonia now. Onnepalu writes simple but precise prose that doesn't tire. Nor does the story about a gay Estonian returning home after being abandoned by an Estonian diva who he worshipped in his youth. Liz Franz is a Gatsby - lavish, damaged, detailed but always out of shot - and the result is so fluid and instantly intriguing.
I'm not sure why I like this so much more than other reviewers, but I do. And I'll write up something longish about it for Three Percent in the near future . . .
I've not read this yet, but a very good review appears in a new journal called Galleon, which you can read about and subscribe to here:http://galleonliteraryjournal.comThe review is by Jacob Siefring, Makes me want to read it even more than before.