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What Stays in the Forest by Colin Niel

June 24, 2018 13 comments

What Stays In The Forest by Colin Niel (2013) Original French title: Ce qui reste en forêt. Not available in English.

What Stays In The Forest is the second volume of the crime fiction series written by French author Colin Niel and featuring Capitaine Anato. Here’s my billet about the first book, Les hamacs de carton. This series is set in French Guiana and it’s a great part of its appeal.

When the book opens, the scientist Serge Feuerstein is found drowned near the research station he worked for. It is set in the heart of the Amazonian forest and it’s a very remote location, accessible via helicopters. Scientists have been settled there for a few years and they are now surrounded by illegal gold-washers. Indeed, this part of the Amazonian forest is full of gold and poor people from Brazil come illegally to French Guiana to work in ad-hoc and illegal gold mines. It’s a cat-and-mouse game with the French gendarmerie but they’d rather be caught on the French territory with its milder police methods than in Brazil.

Colin Niel creates an interesting set of characters among the scientists living in close quarters at the station. How was Serge Feuerstein killed? Did he disturb illegal gold-washers who decided to eliminate him? Does his death has anything to do with the strange discovery of a dead albatross in French Guiana, a place not frequented by these birds, and incidentally the ones Feuerstein chose as a topic for his PhD.

The crime investigation is well-crafted and Colin Niel describes life in Cayenne very well. It’s a strange mix of exoticism and familiarity with all the French organization of society (police,…) and the natural setting which is totally foreign for a French from mainland France.

Captain Anato is an interesting character. He’s from the Maroon community in Guiana but was raised in the suburbs of Paris. He has asked to be transferred to French Guiana after his parents die. He’s trying to get his footing at work while getting reacquainted with his family. He needs to understand his personal history. His parents were tight-lipped about their reasons for moving to Paris. He’s slowly meeting with his family and discovering where he comes from. We also learn more about the personal lives of his two colleagues Vacaresse and Girbal.

I enjoyed everything about this book: the setting, the murder investigation, the explanations about illegal gold-miners in Amazonia, the descriptions of Cayenne and Anato’s internal turmoil. What Stays In The Forest was our Book Club choice for April (I know, I’m late again) and we all loved it. We all enjoyed the style, the story, the fascinating discovery of a piece of France we know nothing about. Anato is an enjoyable character, full of nuances and personal hurts.

Call it literary serendipity but the issue of gold mining in the Amazonian forest has recently made the headlines in France. The governement wants to grant authorization to set up a giant gold mine in the heart of the forest, discarding ecological consequences or the ones for the indigenous people living off the forest on the Maroni river. See an article here.

Sorry for foreign readers, this is not available in English. For French readers, it’ll make a wonderful summer read.

Remembering Babylon by David Malouf

June 17, 2018 15 comments

Remembering Babylon by David Malouf. (1994) French title: Je me souviens de Babylone.

Remembering Babylon by David Malouf is set in Queensland, Australia in the early days of the European settlements in this territory.

When the book opens, three children, Janet and Meg McIvor and Lachlan Beattie meet with Gemmy when they are playing in the fields. Sixteen years before, when he [Gemmy] was not much older than Lachlan Beattie, he had been cast overboard from a passing ship and had been living since in the scrub country to the north with blacks. The children are afraid of him but recognize a bit of English in his words and bring him back to their parents.

Gemmy’s arrival disturbed two communities. Sixteen years ago, the Aborigines didn’t know what to make of him but took him in and he learnt to live among them. He learnt the language, the customs and managed to fit in. He became part of their history.

In time his coming among them became another tale they told and he would listen to it with a kind of wonder, as if what they were recounting had happened ages ago, in a time beyond all memory, and to someone else. How, when they found him he had still been half-child, half-seacalf, his hair swarming with spirits in the shape of tiny phosphorescent crabs, his mouth stopped with coral; how, ash-pale and ghostly in his little white shirt, that long ago had rotted like a caul, he had risen up in the firelight and danced, and changed before their eyes from a sea-creature into a skinny human child.

At the time the book is set, his arrival disturbs the settlers. They don’t know don’t know how to place him. Bad enough if he was what he appeared to be, a poor savage, but if he was a white man it was horrible. And the nagging question is “Is he still white or has be become black by living with the natives?”. In their mind, being white has value in itself and losing your whiteness is losing your humanity. Gemmy’s condition is puzzling:

He had started out white. No question. When he fell in with the blacks – at thirteen, was it? – he had been like any other child, one of their own for instance. (That was hard to swallow.) But had he remained white?

The underlying question is: is he one of us? Can we welcome him in the community? Can we trust him? For them, you cannot be in-between. Either you’re white and with them and have no contact with the blacks, either you’re black and keep away from the settlers. Gemmy has almost forgotten his native language, which doesn’t help the communication with the settlers. The loss of the English language is also a source of distress for them:

Could you lose it? Not just language, but it. It. For the fact was, when you looked at him sometimes he was not white. His skin might be but not his features. The whole cast of his face gave him the look of one of Them. How was that, then?

All this questioning helps today’s reader to enter into the settler’s mindset. They were mostly ignorant and didn’t have the capacity to see the whole picture or even beyond their everyday life. Whiteness is valuable, a thing to hold on to, an identity. It reminded me of Toni Morrison’s take on otherness in The Origin of Others and how she explains that white non-wasp immigrants relied on the colour of their skin to fit in the American society.

The settlers in Australia see their self-worth validated by the colour of their skin and it also justifies their presence in this land. They are part of the European mindset of the time that thought that colonizing countries was bringing light and civilization to the locals.

It doesn’t occur to them that the Aborigines have their own culture and that it’s as worthy as theirs. Gemmy can speak the language of the Aboriginal community that took him in. The settlers see this as suspicious, not as a chance to have a middleman between them and the Aborigines. They don’t think that they have something to learn from them or that coexistence or cooperation is possible. The colour of their skin is different, cooperation is not a possibility. They could learn from Gemmy…

And in fact a good deal of what they were after he could not have told, even if he had wanted to, for the simple reason that there were no words for it in their tongue; yet when, as sometimes happened, he fell back on the native word, the only one that could express it, their eyes went hard, as if the mere existence of a language they did not know was a provocation, a way of making them helpless.

…but they refuse to acknowledge the Aboriginal civilization, its value and its knowledge of the land. It would mean that they were equals and that’s not even a possibility.

They had secretly, some of them, a vision of plantations with black figures moving in rows down a field, a compound with neat whitewashed huts, a hallway, all polished wood, with an old grey-haired black saying ‘Yessir’, and preparing to pull off their boots (all this off in the future of course, maybe far off; for the moment they would not mention the boots since most of them did not have any).

Black skin is associated with slavery, with being inferior to white skin. It’s deeply rooted in their heads through their upbringing. Jock McIvor and his family take Gemmy in when he joins the settlement. Jock is able to see beyond Gemmy’s appearance. He doesn’t phrase it that way but he sees a human being before everything else. This state of mind will set him apart from the other farmers and will cause him trouble.

Malouf tries to show the settlers’ point of view with objectivity. Their existence in Queensland is uncertain. The settlement is not even a village.

Apart from their scattered holdings, the largest of which was forty acres, there was nothing to the settlement but a store and post office of unpainted weatherboard, with a verandah and a dog in front of it that was permanently asleep but if kicked would shift itself, walk five steps, then flop. Opposite the store was a corrugated iron shack, a shanty-pub, unlicensed as yet, with hitching posts and a hollowed log that served as a trough.

It’s far from what they knew in Europe. They left everything behind to take a chance in a foreign land, a place they knew nothing about. They came with nothing but tools and willpower. Malouf reminds us how hard it was for them.

You had to learn all over again how to deal with weather: drenching downpours when in moments all the topsoil you had exposed went liquid and all the dry little creek-beds in the vicinity ran wild; cyclones that could wrench whole trees up by their roots and send a shed too lightly anchored sailing clear through the air with all its corrugated iron sheets collapsing inward and slicing and singing in the wind. And all around, before and behind, worse than weather and the deepest night, natives, tribes of wandering myalls who, in their traipsing this way and that all over the map, were forever encroaching on boundaries that could be insisted on by daylight – a good shotgun saw to that – but in the dark hours, when you no longer stood there as a living marker with all the glow of the white man’s authority about you, reverted to being a creek-bed or ridge of granite like any other, and gave no indication that six hundred miles away, in the Lands Office in Brisbane, this bit of country had a name set against it on a numbered document, and a line drawn that was empowered with all the authority of the Law.

It doesn’t occur to them that they are stealing the natives’ land. They feel entitled to it. The idea that the sense of property is different for the Aborigines is totally foreign to them just as it was to the settlers in America when they took land from the Indians. We tend to forget how ignorant the settlers were.

I liked Remembering Babylon for the open questioning of the colonization of Australia. It reminds us how easy to judge when we look back on it with our modern eyes. It was wrong and the Apology to Australia’s Indigenous peoples is a good thing. Beyond the colonization issue, Remembering Babylon addresses the issue of “otherness” that leads to racism. How does the colour of my skin affects my membership to the national community?

I admired Remembering Babylon for this and for the precise and poetic style of Malouf’s writing. I didn’t enjoy it as much as I could have because Malouf’s style was difficult for me. I also wished he had sticked to a unique thread of plot, the one exploring the effect of Gemmy’s presence in the community. I don’t think it was useful to tell about Gemmy’s past in Europe or about Janet’s interest in bees.

I would like to know how other readers felt about it, so feel free to comment. I’ll add that the covers of the book are tremendous and perfectly fit its content.

As a conclusion, I’ll leave you with this quote, which echoes with the discussion about agriculture that I had with Bill from The Australian Legend on my billet about There Will Be Dust by Sandrine Collette.

We have been wrong to see this continent as hostile and infelicitous, so that only by the fiercest stoicism, a supreme resolution and force of will, and by felling, clearing, sowing with the seeds we have brought with us, and by importing sheep, cattle, rabbits, even the very birds of the air, can it be shaped and made habitable. It is habitable already.

Novella book recommendations : the list

June 10, 2018 24 comments

Sorry it took me almost a month to compile the list of novella recommendations I gathered after my billet asking for reading ideas.

I listed all the book titles left in the comments and also the list of novellas from Mrs Bibi Lophile’s A Novella a Day In May. Lisa from ANZ LitLovers has a list of novellas on her blog. (See here) Jonathan Gibbs from Tiny Camels also had novella reading challenge, see here. I’m sure there are other blogs with challenges like this or lists of novellas but these are the ones I’m aware of.

Thanks a lot for responding to my post.

Now apart from Lisa’s and Jonathan’s list, let’s see what I gathered:

# French title English title Author Country # pages
1 La partie de cartes The Game of Cards Adolf Schröder Germany 178
2 Non traduit Such Small Hands Andres Barbas Spain 112
3 Parler seul Talking to Ourselves Andrés Neuman Argentina 168
4 La steppe. Histoire d’un voyage The Steppe Anton Chekhov Russia 160
5 Pereira prétend Pereira Maintains Antonio Tabucchi Italy 213
6 Nocturne indien Indian Nocturne Antonio Tabucchi Italy 126
7 Un bref mariage The Story of a Brief Marriage Anuk Arudpragasam Sri Lanka 208
8 Non traduit Our Spoons Came From Woolworth Barbara Comyns UK
9 Les boutiques de cannelle The Street of Crocodiles Bruno Schulz Poland 208
10 Djamilia Jamilia Chingiz Aitmatov Russia 96
11 Un homme au singulier A Single Man Christopher Isherwood UK 175
12 Le blé en herbe The Ripening Seed Colette France
13 Les aventures de Kornél Esti Kornél Esti Dezső Kosztolányi Hungary 154
14 Non traduit Madame Verona Comes Down the Hill Dimitri Verhulst Belgium 160
15 Non traduit Mirror, Shoulder, Signal Dorothy Nors Denmark 188
16 Psaumes balbutiés. Livre d’heures de ma mère Stammered Songbook : A Mother’s Book of Hours Erwin Mortier Belgium 192
17 Le brigand bien-aimé The Robber Bridgegroom Eudora Welty USA 144
18 L’oncle Daniel le généreux The Ponder Heart Eudora Welty USA 132
19 La troisième Miss Symons The Third Miss Symons FM Mayor UK 127
20 Le dimanche des mères Mothering Sunday Graham Swift UK 141
21 Les années douces Strange Weather in Tokyo Hiromi Kawakami Japan 283
22 Contes hassidiques Not available in English I.L. Peretz Poland 171
23 Sur la plage de Chesil On Chesil Beach Ian McEwan UK 183
24 Un Bonheur de Rencontre The Comfort of Strangers Ian McEwan UK 217
25 Non traduit After Claude Iris Owens USA 232
26 Le restaurant de l’amour retrouvé The Restaurant of Love Regained Ito Ogawa Japan 224
27 Premier amour et autres histoires First Love Ivan Turgenev Russia
28 Non traduit After Leaving Mr Mackenzie Jean Rhys UK
29 Voyage dans les ténèbres Voyage in the Dark Jean Rhys UK 207
30 Quartet Quartet Jean Rhys UK 144
31 Non traduit We who are about to… Joanna Russ USA 144
32 La maison muette The Dumb House John Burnside UK 208
33 Hôtel Savoy Hotel Savoy Josef Roth Austria 188
34 Si nous vivions dans un endroit normal Quesadillas Juan Pablo Villalobos Mexico 192
35 La compagnie des Tripolitaines Under the Tripoli Sun Kamel Ben Hameda Lybia 108
36 Comédie en mode mineur Comedy in a Minor Key Keilson Germany 227
37 Code barre Not available in English Krisztina Tóth Hungary 208
38 La mer couleur de vin The Wine-dark Sea Leonardo Sciascia Italy 210
39 Un regard de sang Seeing Red Lina Meruane Chile 224
40 Non traduit Birds of America Lorrie Moore USA 291
41 La femme de Gilles La Femme de Gilles Madeleine Bourdouxhe Belgium 154
42 L’Odyssée de Pénélope The Penelopiad Margaret Atwood Canada 159
43 Ours Bear Marian Engel Canada 141
44 La douleur porte un costume de plumes Grief is the Thing With Feathers Max Porter UK 114
45 La Solution finale The Final Solution Michael Chabon USA 105
46 Demoiselles aux moyens modestes The Girls of Slender Means Muriel Sparks UK 170
47 L’empreinte de l’ange The Mark of an Angel Nancy Huston Canada 328
48 La poursuite de l’amour The Pursuit of Love Nancy Mitford UK 253
49 Non traduit Up the Junction Nell Dunn UK 133
50 La couleur du lait The Colour of Milk Nell Leyshon UK 186
51 Clair-obscur Passing Nella Larsen USA 122
52 Non traduit Devil by the Sea Nina Bawden UK 175
53 Falaises Cliffs Olivier Adam France 206
54 La Théorie du panda The Panda Theory Pascal Garnier France 176
55 L’affaire Lolita The Bookshop Penelope Fitzgerald UK 188
56 Le mangeur de citrouille The Pumpkin Eater Penelope Mortimer UK 184
57 Non traduit The Murder of Halland Pia Juul Denmark 167
58 Non traduit The Disappearance of Signora Giulia Piero Chiara Italy 128
59 Le retour du soldat The Return of the Soldier Rebecca West. UK 112
60 Non traduit Two Pints Roddy Doyle UK 85
61 Le son de ma voix The Sound of My Voice Ron Butlin UK 122
62 Les braises Ashes Sándor Márai Hungary 219
63 L’héritage d’Esther Esther’s Inheritance Sándor Márai Hungary 156
64 Piège pour Cendrillon Trap for Cinderella Sebastien Japrisot France 240
65 Non traduit Stuck Like Lint Shefali Tripathi Mehta India 156
66 Nous avons toujours vécu au château We Have Always Lived in the Castle Shirley Jackson USA 234
67 Le garçon qui n’existait pas Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was Sjón Iceland 150
68 La cote 400 The Library of Unrequited Love Sophie Divry France 94
69 Lettre d’une inconnue Letter from an Unknown Woman Stefan Zweig Austria 138
70 Le voyage dans le passé Journey into the Past Stefan Zweig Austria 177
71 Le chat qui venait du ciel The Guest Cat Takashi Hiraide Japan 130
72 La sonate à Kreutzer The Kreutzer Sonata Tolstoy Russia 122
73 Au commencement était la mer In the Beginning was the Sea Tomás González Colombia 221
74 La passe dangereuse The Painted Veil W. Somerset Maugham UK 182
75 Le pont d’Alexandre Alexander’s Bridge Willa Cather USA 176
76 Une dame perdue A Lost Lady Willa Cather USA 190
77 Non traduit They Came Like Swallows William Maxwell USA 140
78 En lisant Tourgeniev Reading Turgeniev William Trevor UK 236
79 Ma Maison en Ombrie My House in Umbria William Trevor UK 188
80 La piscine The Diving Pool Yoko Ogawa Japan 71
81 La formule préférée du professeur The Housekeeper and the Professor Yoko Ogawa Japan 244

I’m sure anyone can find some reading bliss among all these books. The numbers in blue correspond to books I’ve already read. As you can see, I have a lot to explore.

Enjoy! And let me know if you read any of these.

PS: There’s also the Novella tag at Whispering Gums.

And I was so focused on other people’s recommendations that I forgot two of my own: The Poor Man’s Son by Mouloud Feraoun and The Anarchist Banker by Fernando Pessoa.

There Will Be Dust by Sandrine Collette

June 4, 2018 13 comments

There Will Be Dust by Sandrine Collette (2016) Original French title: Il reste la poussière. Not available in English.

La vie n’attend pas qu’on ait envie d’y mettre les mains. Life doesn’t wait for you to be ready to put your hands in it.

In There Will Be Dust by Sandrine Collette, we are on a small farm in Patagonia at the beginning of the 20th century. Rafael is the youngest of four boys and has always been bullied by his brothers. Their father disappeared one day, never came back and the mother runs the farm with an iron fist.

Her sons are working slaves not better treated than mules and horses. She knows her older sons mistreat their little brother but she doesn’t care. They’re like a pack of dogs, she feeds them, lets them live under her roof but lets the pack find their own leader. She doesn’t give them any affection and Rafael finds solace in his horse and his dog.

Their life is tough, their farm is isolated and only the oldest sons, the twins Joaquin and Mauro are allowed to go to the nearest town with their Ma. The third son, Steban, doesn’t speak and tries to remain neutral between the twins and Rafael.

It’s a hard book to sum up because a lot of it is spend in everyday life and peering into the brothers’ minds. I felt closer to Rafael but also sorry for the others, to live in such dreadful conditions with such a hard mother. Their world is changing fast, there’s less and less room for small farms and they always struggle with money. One event will change their life but I can’t tell more without spoilers.

There Will Be Dust is a very atmospheric novel. It has an incredible sense of place. Sandrine Collette has a style that talks to all your senses. You can imagine the wind, the sun, the rush of riding a horse, the smell of the country. Her descriptions of sheep farming and sheep shearing ring true. She writes about the noise, the smell, the behavior of the sheep.

She takes you to this hard world, into this desperate family of hard working farmers. There’s a lot of violence in their life and Rafael seems to be their only hope for a different vision of life. But how to escape the yoke their mother put on their necks? How will they have a chance to life in a different light and let warmth seep into their interactions instead of the coldness ingrained by their heartless mother?

Their mother is like a dark spider, controlling everything and everyone. She’s a witch with economical and emotional power that she uses freely. Rafael’s natural temper is different and he’s incredibly resilient. His brothers and mother bully him and it should make him change. But he remains softhearted and hopeful and trusting in human nature. He’s their gift, his brothers’ chance at breaking their mother’s spell on them.

It’s an extremely powerful read. It’s a bleak family story in an unforgiving environment. In a way, it belongs to the same family as The Hands by Stephen Orr. Translation Tragedy

Update in January 2019.

Il reste la poussière is now available in English. It’s entitled Nothing But Dust and is published by Europa Editions.

Claire from Word by Word has read it and her review is here.

 

Not Meeting Mr Right by Anita Heiss – Being choc-lit is not enough

June 3, 2018 29 comments

Not Meeting Mr Right by Anita Heiss (2007) French title: Je n’ai pas (encore) rencontré l’homme ideal. Translated by Viriginie Lochou.

I first heard of Aboriginal writer Anita Heiss on Lisa’s blog when she reviewed Barbed Wires and Cherry Blossoms, a book I decided to read. Unfortunately, it’s not available on my kindle store but Not Meeting Mr Right was. I knew it was chick lit and remembered Lisa’s introduction of Anita Heiss as a chick lit writer. Here’s what she wrote:

Heiss writes what she calls choc-lit with a purpose: writing to engage non-Indigenous Australians with light-hearted novels about people ‘just like herself’, modern independent women who have or want to have great careers, women who network within great friendships, women who fall in and out of love, and women who face challenges and have their share of loss, failure or success.

I enjoyed following Bridget Jones’s ups and downs, so I thought I should try choc-lit from down under.

This is how I started with Alice Aigner and her group of friends Dannie, Peta and Liza. Alice is 28 of Koori and European descent. She’s a history teacher at a Catholic school in Sydney. She lives in Coogee and she’s single. She was happily single until she had a change of heart at a friend’s engagement party. She decides she’ll be married when she turns thirty and embarks on a dating journey that more like the trail of hell than an unwinding promenade along the beach.

I should have known what to expect, really, but I was still hopeful that it would be more choc than chick and boy, how disappointed I was. The only redeeming part of this book for this reader is the learning of Australian colloquial words like postie, arvo or sickie . I discovered what French knickers are – I wasn’t aware that we had specific ones, mind you – or that people might throw some roo in the wok. I’d never heard of kitchen teas and didn’t know that Western Sydney has the highest population of urban Aboriginal people in the country.

Some thoughts about interactions between whites and Aborigines were thrown here and there because Alice being a Koori is sometimes an issue. It was mildly interesting.

For the rest. Yuck. At least Bridget Jones Diary had the workplace part that was hilarious. Here we only have the dating drama and drinking. I kept reading because I hoped developments on the place of Aborigines in Sydney and I started to see the language angle and how educational it could be. But Alice, wow, no wonder she’s single. What a piece of work she is, always finding her dates lacking and never questioning herself. Here she is after another unhappy love affair, throwing an internal tantrum:

I concluded that all men were basically emotional cripples or completely illogical or both. Even though they didn’t think like we did, they could at least be considerate enough to think like each other, so that there was some consistency to their irrational behaviour.

Right. She makes a big deal out of every outing and spends hours waxing, relaxing, doing her nails, her hair, her makeup. You’d think she was competing in the Olympic Dating Games. She wants everything and its opposite. No sex on the first date but enough tension to feel it could be a possibility. Romantic outings are requested but also being ready for family diners. She dissects everything:

He had invited me to dinner on a Friday night, too – it was a very positive sign. A lunch invitation is good, but a dinner invitation is much better. Dinner means a serious invite. A date on a Friday is a really serious date, much more serious than dinner on a Tuesday or Wednesday. He didn’t say Thursday, because it’s payday – not like Simple Simon. Yes, it was certainly looking good.

Does she think that men want to be studied like bugs?

I’ve been married for a long time now but I kept wondering if there are actual Alices in this world or if they are just a stereotype for chick lit. I have no idea of what the dating scene is like nowadays, so I’ll make assumptions.

If single women are like Alice, I truly understand why men run for the hills and want to stay far, far away from them. These ladies are scary. If these ladies exist, I’ll recommend them to try being low maintenance without being a doormat and that should do the trick for coupledom.

If these characters don’t exist in real life and are only chick lit books creatures, then my question is more about the impact of these characters on teenagers and young adults. Do they read them as an indulgence with the appropriate suspension of belief or do they imagine that the real world is like that? I don’t have the answer to this question.

I can’t say I enjoyed Not Meeting Mr Right as a book but I still got something out of it, if only the Australian spoken language vibe. I still want to read Barbed Wires and Cherry Blossoms though. Hopefully I’ll manage to buy it during the summer. I’m not good at reading non-fiction otherwise I’d try one of Heiss’s essays.

PS: I was really surprised to find out that Not Meeting Mr Right has been translated into French. It seems unfair that this one is available to the French public but not That Deadman Dance by Kim Scott. *sigh*

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