Thursday, 9 June 2011

Veggie Books: Mister Roberts

I'm a fan of Alexei Sayle. I read Barcelona Plates, his first collection of short stories, and felt it had a gleeful freedom that's often missing in modern writing. It didn't feel careful, or considered. It felt like splurges of ideas spread messily over the page. It didn't obey the unspoken laws of the written word. There wasn't a lot of character development at times, and plot would be sacrificed happily for a comic moment. It was a refreshing experience.

And then I loved his novel, The Weeping Women Hotel. That had plot and characterisation, and also the funniest reflection on martial arts I've ever read. And a ditty about soup. So Mister Roberts had a fair bit to live up to, and it didn't quite manage it. It felt a bit too contained, too structural. It stayed put in one place. It didn't feel as free.

That's not to say it wasn't still enjoyable, as any novel involving a young boy who comes across wreckage from a crashed alien craft might be. There's lot of general weirdness and that's lots of fun. And there's interesting stuff about the life of the ex-pat in Spain, too, and the guilt felt about muscling into a beautiful country and turning it into either touristic or industrial wastelands:

Huge swathes of the hills inland from the sea were ruined by a continuous canopy of plastic. It covered so much territory that it could easily be seen from space, the roofs of fifty thousand closely packed greenhouses. Just ten years ago this was largely uninhabited desert, rich in plant and animal life but arid. Now, under cover, tomatoes, lettuces, melons and peppers were grown all year round for the supermarkets of Europe.

And it's a short book, too. I know that shouldn't make a difference, but when you're reading a black comedy I think short is always better. You can certainly have too much despair cloaked in humour.

So, if you haven't read any Alexei Sayle, maybe start with the short stories first. If you're already a fan then Mister Roberts is certainly worth a read. And it won't take up too much of your time. Realistically, who's got time for Ancient Evenings? I keep saying I'm going to get round to it but there it is, on my bedside table, waiting for my attention. Hm.

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