A review of A Collection of Reviews

I had finished sipping my orange green tea and set off back to the station, when a blockade in the pavement of books for 5 dollars stopped me. The Agatha Christie’s reeled me in, but my nose led me away, into the shop. Suddenly, I was confronted by vast stacks of porcelain knick-knacks, sculpted felines serving as bowls, pots and other vessels to hold pumpkin soup and sour cream on a pleasant Georgian recreational summer’s day. I froze. Luckily, I spotted a sign by some steps to the basement promising books.

As I descended the stairs, my eyes feasted upon lines upon lines of the goods. A motley assortment of texts sliced the room into partitions; each partition fielded a powerful possé of mouthpieces for its allotted subject: Australian history, experimental French literature, gardening and garden allotments.

When I finally reached the literary criticism section, searching for The Over-Abundance of Unnecessary Literary Examples Within Literature and Get To The Point, I spotted a white tome: A Collection of Book Reviews by Andrea C. Hansdatter. The collection didn’t have a price, and the shopkeeper appeared to be baffled by its presence, so I offered to relieve her of her bafflement and book for 5 bucks.

It has been consuming me ever since. The collection appears to order the books first by author surname, and then by publication date. However this system is already abandoned at Atwood, where Hansdatter proceeds to review Orwell, Huxley, Zamyatin, More and a slew of other dystopian/utopian fiction. Indeed, in the review of A Handmaid’s Tale, a commentary about the novelty of seeing a dystopia from predominantly an individual’s perspective as opposed to from a greater societal view, is sidelined by a vehement critique, in which Hansdatter chastises 1984 for pillaging We of its plot and characters, and eschewing the radical innovative narrative language and changing the power dynamic of the central couple to the detriment of the woman. Hansdatter lambasts Orwell’s other work too, though I suspect she has not read them (aside from perhaps Animal Farm); this is based off of a hunch, however, as I have not read them yet either.

The reviews vary greatly in style, length, comprehensability, accuracy and taste, much like the books reviewed. However, common threads do shine through. Hansdatter often begins with some background on how she came across the book. She’s forever travelling from one place to another, sampling exotic delicatessen, being barraged by sudden apparitions of Sherlock Holmes compilations. Infuriatingly, we never find out why her baguette is red, nor what her destination is; her train of thought is always interrupted by a review of a book.

Certain frames of reference pop up consistently too. Although Hansdatter is not as profligate as say Quentin Tarantino or Mark Fisher in plucking esoteric references from Japanese action films or Japanese cyberpunk anime, she will happily name-drop Tarantino and Fisher, without introduction, to make a point clear. She is particularly fond of using examples from her personal life, Hans C. Andersen’s stories, and quips from an imaginary friend.

Pithy, short, cutting statements dot Hansdatter’s collection. The entry for Little Women states: ‘Eat forty seven heaped spoonfuls of sugar to achieve a similar effect.’ On Lord of the Rings and Dune, she writes: ‘Orcs and destiny are rather dull.’ The shortest review I have found so far, is the entry for Don Quixote: ‘The best.’

Through her shifts in tone, her references, her favourites, her digressions, we gradually piece together parts of Hansdatter’s personality, and the world she inhabits. We learn of her love of Greece, and how on her first trip there she saw ‘the perfect marriage of sea, land and sky; resplendent majesty to be savoured whole’. We learn that she adores swimming outside, whether in a port in Copenhagen, where she can smell the cinnamon buns crispening in the morning winter sun; in a glacial lake in the Alps with her best friend, splashing in the deep turquoise; or at Little Bay beach after a day painting the restless seascape, musing on the words of the artist Maggi Hambling:

The sea – I suppose it is a metaphor for life and death, and recycling and all of that. It is also very sexy. I mean, you see a distant wave gradually fumbling about. Approaching, approaching, approaching, until it reaches the shore. It is pretty orgasmic, when it crashes, when it dissolves.

We do not learn who her favourite artist is, nor which piece of artwork she holds dearest; but Hansdatter self-knowlingly and pain-stakingly describes Zeichenreihen, a painting by Vasily Kandinsky, in which Kandinsky lines up all of his favourite motifs on shelves, proudly on display to his audience. Like Kandinsky’s Zeichenreihen, Hansdatter’s reviews are full of her favourite motifs, all lined up, stark, colourful, sharpened.

We are treated to a plethora of these motifs in perhaps Hansdatter’s longest review, her review of Die Lebenden und die Toten, a crime story in German by Nele Neuhaus. In the review, Hansdatter intersects a complete line-by-line English translation with swathes of venom. Here is a taster:

This is a characterless characterisation of a character without character. The language is bland. The character is bland. It leaves me salivating for dry bark instead, splinters included.

“She has been an Executive Partner at an international consultancy for eight years, responsible for the restructuring and internationalisation of companies, and two years ago she was assigned as the head of Management Consulting.”

The lack of detail is conspicuous. Which international consultancy? For what companies? Are there any positions and departments more vague than Executive Partner and Management Consulting? Where’s the bark?

Hansdatter also includes a full translation of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. All previous translations of ‘ungeheurer Ungeziefer’ into English did not quite sit right with her; she deemed them all to be ‘repulsive monstrosities’. So she translated the phrase, then the first sentence, and then simply continued until she had translated the whole novella. In my view, Hansdatter’s translation is sublime, as sublime as any I can imagine.

Whether these two are her only reviews to include full original translations, I do not know. There is no contents page, and the index appears to have been plagiarised word for word from the index of Index, A History of the. The only reliable method to find a review of a specific book within the collection is to flick through and spot its italicised name.

And that is driving me mad. The longer I read A Collection of Book Reviews, the more convinced I am that Hansdatter is furiously editing it as I read it. I had thought that Hansdatter had neglected to mention La Disparation, but when I check it now, it is right there, in its correct alphabetical place. And the review for The Very Hungry Caterpillar has gained wings and vanished into the very air. To catch the text shape-shifting, I have purchased a scanner. To my dismay, when I lay any page from the collection against the glass screen, the scanner registers only blank page after blank page. But only for this one book; it photocopies the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, passports and currency fine, but those are of no use to me. To outsmart my book-bothering trickster, I have started to keep the collection on my person at all times; I sleep with the book beneath my pillow. This has brought about another issue: stories I dream of during the night now appear reviewed in the book the day after. Even for stories which are simply a figment of my imagination. I swear.

I am overcome with a sense of futility. How am I to review this book of reviews, which expands as I sleep? Who am I to review this book of reviews, to judge Hansdatter? Who am I to review a review of a book if I have not read the book reviewed? Can I even have a valid opinion, if I have never read Tolstoy and Joyce, Hamlet and Macbeth?

Somewhere within the collection, Hansdatter forgets which book she is reviewing, and wonders:

Why do I bother? However many books I read, it will be but a drop in the ocean. What am I trying to do? Am I simply trying to add feathers to my tail, to peacock around and attract a bespectacled mate, to prove my worth to some unthinking reader or unknowing deity? I try to surf these waves of prose and poetry to gaze at the heavens, to grasp at grounds for my existence, to not be dragged down by the crashing rips which course over me; questions tear me from every dimension. I grasp onto books, other humans’ defiant claims to relevancy after death; I allow their ideas, preserved from cranium to ink, to dance released again in my mind. I hope to glean another way, another path, to understand this maelstrom of being, to see the world anew, again and ever again.

Reading Hansdatter’s worries comforts me; another creature wrestles the same demons. And rightfully so, I might add, for I have spotted a glaring hole in A Collection of Reviews. Despite her professed admiration of him, Andrea C. Hansdatter has neglected to review any of Hans C. Andersen’s works. However, Andrea C. Hansdatter has, inexplicably, somehow written a one sentence review of A review of A Collection of Reviews by C. C.:

C. C., evidently, should have picked up an Agatha Christie instead.