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White heat is screaming in the jungle

February 23, 2015 18 comments

Zoo City by Lauren Beukes (2011) French title: Zoo City. (Translated by Laurent Philibert-Caillat)

Can’t stop the spirits when they need you

This life is more than just a read-through

Can’t Stop by Red Hot Chili Peppers

After On the Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin, I needed something urban and fast-paced. I wanted a radical change of atmosphere. So I picked Zoo City by Lauren Beukes and my wish was fulfilled.

beukesWe are in Johannesburg, in the fictional neighborhood of Zoo City where criminals live with their symbiotic animal. In this world, since they committed a crime and feel responsible for it, criminals have to wear their guilt in the form of a living animal glued to them day and night. Indeed, if they walk away from it, both die.

Zinzi is a former journalist, a former junkie and a former convict. That’s a lot for a person. She now belongs to Zoo City and her animal is a Sloth. (In French, it’s called a Paresseux, literally, a Lazy, so it gives an extra-dimension to the imposed pet). Zinzi survives by using her supernatural gift: she sees a person’s lost objects and can find them again. She advertises through flyers and proposes her services against a little cash. You lost your ring? Zinzi can find it and bring it back to you. One morning, she goes to an old lady’s place to bring her object back and get paid. But when she arrives there, the old lady has been killed and Zinzi can say good-bye to her money. Out of necessity, she’s forced to accept a mission she doesn’t like: she must find a person, a teenage pop star named Song, who’s been missing for a few days. Her guts tell her she should refuse this job but her wallet won’t allow it…

Then we are thrown into a classic Noir plot. A person with a past is cornered into accepting a task they know is shady. They get mixed into seedy business with a colorful string of characters and have to overcome obstacles to solve the problem. They may have to call in favors. And the journey is not without impact on their personal life. It has been done before but Lauren Beukes blends well into the genre and I totally understand why she was invited to Quai du Polar last year.

She has written pure Noir. Zinzi is a new version of the struggling PI who survives of lowly jobs and gets mixed into something that’s bigger than him. (The PI is usually a He). The investigation regarding Song works like a canvas and holds the book together but the most interesting is the atmosphere and the unusual idea of wearing your guilt on your sleeve through an animal’s impersonation.

What’s unique is the setting. It’s atmospheric and although you’re only reading with your eyes, I had the feeling other senses than my eyesight were called out. For me, this book had the sound track of Red Hot Chili Peppers in Can’t Stop. It conjured up images of Nikita by Luc Besson, only in black-and-white. As Zinzi investigates Song’s disappearance all over Johannesburg, I could almost smell the city, the car exhaust, the disagreeable smell you have in public transports like the metro in Paris. It smells metallic from the contact of the trains’ wheels with the rails and stale from the lack of proper airing. I could imagine the constant noise, the one you have in the congested streets of New York with emergency vehicles and police cars blaring. Johannesburg is as much a character and the humans in Zoo City. Lauren Beukes gives us a feel of its fictional impersonation just as you get a vision of Los Angeles in a novel by Chandler. Zinzi goes everywhere, from the bowels of the drain network to shopping malls, from the dangerous streets and decrepit buildings of Zoo City to the luxurious villa of Song’s producer and from the night life in bars to Benoît’s day job as a security employee.

And then, there’s the idea of this pet forced on you. Redemption is an illusion and this animal is a constant reminder of your actions. The past can’t lie in the past. Zinzi has a Sloth but some have an insect and some get encumbered by a marabou. While the insect can be hidden in a handbag, the marabou is a lot more difficult to conceal. Throughout the book, we learn a little more about Zinzi’s past life. Her present is in her life with her lover Benoît, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He had a wife and kids that he left behind, in a country ravaged by war. He has an animal with him, a mongoose and of course, a terrible past. With Benoît, Zinzi is forced to be part of the refugees who came from different war zones in Africa. Although we are in a fictional world but it still bears resemblance with ours and this part sounded real. Coming from my little self-centered Western world, I pictured South Africa like a piece of Western culture in Africa. I never realized it wasn’t isolated from all the horrible wars of the continent, that it had its share of refugees from combat zones. This is a side of South Africa I didn’t expect and I feel a bit stupid to be surprised.

Zoo City is not my usual type of books. I bought it last year at Quai du Polar. Lauren Beukes was there, I went to talk to her because I remembered Max’s glowing review of Zoo City. She was really friendly with her public and I’m the happy owner of a signed copy of this little jewel. Check out Max’s review since he’s read the book in English and thus has quotes to share. It will give you an idea of Lauren Beukes’s addicting style. He was also able to explain more specifically the animal phenomenon, something I didn’t find the English words for. Thanks Max, I owe you another one.

 

Catsplay

February 15, 2015 13 comments

Catsplay: A tragi-comedy in two acts (1974) by Istvan Örkény (1912-1979) French title: Le chat et la souris. Translated by Natalia Zaremba-Huzsvai and Charles Zaremba. Original title: Macskajáték. 

Nous voulons tous quelque chose les uns des autres. Il n’y a qu’aux vieux qu’on ne demande plus rien.Mais quand les vieux veulent quelque chose les uns des autres, cela nous fait rire. We all want something from other people. Old people are the only ones we want nothing from.But when old people want something from other old people, it makes us laugh.

orkény_chat_sourisThis is the first chapter of Catsplay, a novel by Hungarian writer Istvan Örkény. He was renowned for his short stories and plays and is considered as a master of grotesque. You can find more about his work here. Catsplay is an epistolary-telephone novel and I bet today it would be an email novel like Gut Gegen Nordwind by Daniel Glattauer except that Castplay is a comedy.

Right after that first short chapter, Örkény describes a picture of two sisters taken in 1919. They belong to the local bourgeoisie and they are in their early twenties. We discover later it’s a picture of the golden age of Giza and Erzsi Szkalla in Léta, their hometown.

We are now in the 1960s, the sisters are two old ladies. Giza lives in Garmisch-Partenkirchen in Germany and Erzsi is still in Budapest. The two sisters keep in touch through letters and phone calls and this is how, us readers know what’s happening with their lives. Giza is disabled and stays with her successful son Michou (I’m sure this name has been translated into French). She’s well taken care of. Erzsi is the widow of Béla Órban. She’s struggling to survive, working as a housekeeper and neglecting herself. Her dissatisfaction with life makes her bitter and cranky. Her only distraction is her weekly diner with Viktor. He’s 71, a former opera singer who is now obese and loves to eat.

At the beginning of the novel, she writes to Giza how she had a fight with the butcher and was not even dressed properly. This is when she reconnects with Paula who is four years older than her and used to live in Léta. Paula has a totally different approach to life. She’s old but she has not given up on life. She’s still interested in pampering, going out and flirting. She turns Erzsi’s life upside down and teaches her that she’s not dead yet.

Erzsi starts dyeing her hair, wearing more fashionable clothes and seeing Viktor through different eyes. He was her old flame, isn’t he still? And isn’t Paula trying to steal him from her? Far away in her German comfort, Giza is corseted by propriety and never fails to admonish her sister from afar. She’s horrified by her sister’s new behavior (and maybe a little jealous).

Catsplay is a comedie de boulevard, one you’d see on stage. It is grotesque in many ways and funny and all. But it is marred with tragedy because the characters are older. They have a past. They were rich and carefree and WWI and the 1929 crisis took it away. Giza has been ill for a long time now and left her country. Her son is more considerate than kind. Erzsi stayed in Budapest and endured WWII and the communist regime. Her marriage was OK but she’s not very close to her only daughter. Love is missing in their lives. Erzsi comments:

On devient aussi minable que sa vie. A force d’être pris pour un rien, on devient un rien. You become as pathetic as your life. By being taken for a nothing, you become a nothing.

There’s an underlying sadness in her words and it is palpable in her exchanges with her sister about their youth. Paula gives Erzsi the opportunity to have a last ride and enjoy life again. She gives herself a chance to reconnect the old woman she is with the young woman she used to be.

Although it is definitely grotesque, it reflects everyday life in Hungary and a generation who suffered from two world wars, the cold war and lived in troubled times.

PS : Other reviews by Passage à l’Est (in French, sorry)

On the Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin

February 7, 2015 27 comments

On the Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin (1982) Translated into French by Georges and Marion Scali. French title: Les jumeaux de Black Hill.

I’m awfully late for the billet regarding our Book Club read for January. It was On the Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin. I only finished it this week. Sure, work and life got in the way but mostly I wasn’t motivated to finish it, something I’ll try to explain in my billet. But first things first, the plot.

Chatwin_GrassetOn the Black Hill relates the life of twin brothers, Benjamin and Lewis Jones in Wales from the beginning of the 20th century to their death in their 80s. I’ve read it in French and it’s lovely. It’s undeniable. It’s well written (and well translated). Chatwin puts a lot of poetry in the description of the land, the peasants and the Jones dynamics as a family. The twins’ mother, Mary was from a higher social class than her peasant husband Amos. They fell in love, she married him against her family’s wishes and their married life was not a bed of roses. Amos was instable, sometimes violent, sometimes mystic. The twins never married (that’s not a spoiler, it’s mentioned in the first chapter) partly because their mother enjoyed having them around and partly because they couldn’t bear to be separated.

Chatwin doesn’t spend pages analysing Lewis or Benjamin’s feelings and vision of life. He makes us understand their personalities and their vision of life through their actions. He shows their special bond due to their twinning. Lewis would have liked a life detached from his brother. He would have wanted to get married and have a family of his own. Benjamin was happy that way and only needed his brother. I found his attitude towards his brother a bit smothering and unhealthy.

Chatwin describes a net of characters around the Jones family –mostly neighbors–and relates their life in a few pages when their path crosses the Jones’ and leave a trace in Benjamin or Lewis’s destiny. All this makes of On the Black Hill a sort of Welsh literary version of a Dutch painting by Brueghel the Elder. It’s picturesque and it shows life in the country.

Hunters_in_the_snow

Two wars appear in the background. Agriculture becomes motorized. The local gentry lose their power after WWI. And life and relationships remain in the same with mutual aid between families, quarrels with neighbors. Nothing really changes in the twins’ routine even if modern life peeks through sometimes.

Honestly, it’s a wonderful book, but just not for me. Chatwin puts a lot of affection in his words, fondness for this rural society who accepts changes but really slowly. On the Black Hill could have been set in another country, in another century and the novel could have been the same. Chatwin conveys the attachment of people to their land, their village and their limited horizon. It’s lovely but not so exciting for this reader.

Stories about rural life tends to bore me unless it’s spiced up by Hardy-esque coincidences. I recognized rural mentality all along the novel and its tendency to accept fate and things as they are without rebelling. There’s this sort of peasant stoicism and acceptance of life as it’s been dealt that irks me. (It irks me in real life too.) I don’t know how to call it. Lack of ambition for anything else than acquiring land? I want to avoid hasty generalization but I can’t put my finger on my annoyance without a bit of generalization.

Well, the book lacked rhythm but only because the twins’ life was slow and mostly uneventful and not due to any flaw of Chatwin’s as a writer. Even if I didn’t love it, it is still a great piece of literature.

Chatwin_Black_HillChatwin_Livre_PocheI want to say something about the covers of this novel. My copy has the red cover; it’s in the collection Les Cahiers Rouges by the publisher Grasset and they have good titles in this collection. The mass-market paperbacks have ludicrous covers, both in French and in English. The French one smells like Irish misery à la Angela’s Ashes. The English one is so corny that I’m embarrassed for the publisher. Did they confuse it with children lit?

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