True North
 by André Mangeot

Salt Publishing 2010
Second Collection
Awards: Longlisted, 2011 Edge Hill Short Story prize







"He didn’t want to be good. Being good just annoyed people, made them mistrust you. Nobody survived in this city by doing the right thing or observing the law. And why should they, when nobody did right by them?"


Reviewed by Michelle Tandoc-Pichereau

True North opens with the following epigraph from Kenneth White’s The Wanderer and His Charts:
Over the centuries, civilization has been carried by various powers: myth, religion, metaphysics. Although remnants of all these remain, usually in degraded forms, today civilization is carried by nothing – it just grows and spreads, like a cancer.
I wasn’t at all familiar with either White or his book, but was intrigued by the quote, and was eager to see how it fit into André Mangeot’s second short story collection (his first, A Little Javanese, also from Salt, is reviewed here). White, I soon learned, is a Scottish poet and academic who founded the "geopoetics" movement, which promotes the open exploration of the "other," "intellectual nomadism" (the refusal to live by set beliefs) and a reconnection to earth and the natural world as a cure for man’s "modern malaise" and "lostness."

I thought it was an apt introduction to Mangeot’s work, for several reasons. For one, Mangeot writes with seeming ease and confidence about the starkly different "worlds" his characters inhabit—whether it’s in the middle of the Algerian desert, in an underground Romanian nightclub, in the sweltering beaches of Malaysia, or what have you. While I cannot personally attest to their authenticity, I was nevertheless convinced by Mangeot’s portrayal of other cultures and locales. True North is rich with details that make each of the seven stories, set in seven different countries, ring true. In The Never-Still and the Stars, for instance, Mangeot describes a busy marketplace street in Indonesia as thus:
Just this side of Jalan Thamrin, the six-lane highway where most of their day would be spent, lamps and carbide-flares glowed among the backstreet warungs, the semi-permanent eating stalls. Boys fanned at flames with banana leaves. Smoke hung in veils. Gesturing diners were cast onto canvas and walls in spidery outlines—living echoes of the stylised shadow-plays, the hundred demons ranged against Krisno and his followers. Here and there along the roadside, the pikulunan—sinewy, steel-wire men (heads thrust forward, backs bent beneath the pressure of their bowing shoulder-poles) were setting down boxes and baskets to reveal soups, noodles, sweetmeats.

I have never been there myself, but I could almost taste the smoke, feel the heat. And as much as he has a gift for capturing what goes on in a place, Mangeot, for the most part, also convincingly captures what goes on in a character’s head—whether he’s writing from the point of view of a vindictive female journalist, an impoverished street kid selling chewing gum, a retired teacher who’s forced to question his sexual identity, and so on. For instance, in Rain, the opening piece, the protagonist reflects on his estranged relationship with his father, a furniture magnate:
It was there that it came to him—what his rebellion, such as it was, was about. If he wanted to accumulate anything, it was experience, not wealth. Money, above all, had nurtured the distance between him and his father. Not simply the time it took to make it, its costs and demands, but the money itself. Doled out more in apology, a substitute for warmth or embrace.
Meanwhile, in the title story True North, the narrator’s friend, a celebrated pianist, describes his need to get away from the crowds and society’s demands and back to the heart of what’s "real":
‘If there’s a truth,’ he’d say, ‘it’s not here. Here is just noise and distraction. Somewhere else is the heartbeat of everything, Paul. We just have to listen…’
Indeed, most of Mangeot’s characters—save one or two—suffer from some form of "lostness" and "disconnect," the kind eschewed by White in his geopoetics discourse. Their lives are in crisis, their moral compasses askew. But just when we think we could recognize them and their inevitable path, however, they surprise us (for the most part) with their choices and make us question our own preconceptions.

Perhaps the only criticism I have about the whole collection is that, despite the ease with which I found myself immersed in the characters and their stories, and despite my obvious admiration for Mangeot’s descriptive powers and eye for detail, there’s a part of me that wondered whether it’s all too carefully written and laid out. I wanted to be shaken into seeing things anew, but in the end, couldn’t help but feel that my journey as a reader was more an intellectual than an emotional one. Nothing gut-wrenching, but pleasant nevertheless, and certainly enough to make me recommend True North (recently long-listed for the Edge Hill Short Story Prize) to anyone looking for a good read.

Read an excerpt from a story from this collection on Salt Publishing


Michelle Tandoc-Pichereau wants to explore the world by foot, pen and lens. Raised in Manila, she lived for a time in Los Angeles before moving to France. A Pushcart Prize nominee and 2008 Sean O’Faolain Short Story Competition finalist, she has stories in places like the Humanist and Southword.

Michelle's other Short Reviews: Matty Stansfield "Donut Holes: Sticky Pieces of Fictionalized Reality"

Stephen Shieber "Being Normal"

"Discovering a Comet and More Microfiction" by Various

Sefi Atta "News from Home"

The Penguin Book of New Zealand Contemporary Stories

Cabala

Jim Hinks and Gul Turner (eds) "The Book of Istanbul"
                     
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André Mangeot has a previous short story collection, A Little Javanese (Salt, 2008), as well as two poetry collections: Natural Causes (Shoestring, 2003) and Mixer (Egg Box, 2005). He lives and works in Cambridge, and is a member of the performance group The Joy of Six.

Read an interview with André Mangeot