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Spada by Bogdan Teodorescu – A stunning political thriller

March 25, 2018 15 comments

Spada by Bogdan Teodorescu. (2008). Not available in English. Translated from the Romanian by Jean-Louis Courriol.

Le problème, ce n’est pas cette affaire, c’est la politisation de l’affaire. C’est que Ràdoulescou, soutenu par Nénisor Vasilé, veut transformer une banale enquête policière en un conflit ethnique risquant d’affecter ma crédibilité à l’étranger et de me déstabiliser à l’intérieur. The problem doesn’t come from this case but from its politicization. The problem is that Ràdulescu, helped by Nénisor Vasilé, wants to change a mundane criminal investigation into an ethnical conflict that might threaten my credibility abroad and destabilize me at home.

And that’s Spada in a nutshell. We’re in Romania in 2008, one year after Romania joined the European Union and the speaker in this quote is the president of the country.  There’s a killer loose in the streets of Bucarest. He kills with precision, flawlessly and the police have not a clue about who he could be. The only thing they know is that all the victims are from Roma minority and all have a police record. They are criminals of all sorts, young thugs, pushy debt collectors, pimps, drug dealers and whatnots. The population of Bucarest doesn’t mourn their deaths. The police are hopeless, due to a shocking lack of means and motivation. The press takes up the case and it’s all over the place.

Spada is not focused on the resolution of the crimes and finding out who the murderer is. Spada is focused on the political treatment of it. The current president is under pressure from all parts. The elections for presidency come in a few months, he has to save face in front of the European Union leaders, the opposition sees it as an opportunity to improve their image and the leaders of minorities take advantage of it to further their cause.

Spada shows how all sides of the political game want to benefit from these unsolved murders and how the politicians in power maneuver to save face, to nip in the bud all potential consequences of this on their upcoming political campaign. The opposition impersonated by Ràdulescu sees in this debacle a way to promote their candidates and press on the inefficiency of the president. Spada also zooms on the leaders of the minorities in Romania, Roma and Hungarian communities and shows how they’re ready to use the situation at their own advantage and puff up to gain more political influence. Spada puts in broad daylight how the leading political parties manipulate the extreme right party to stir up trouble, to create some panic and steer the voters towards them. Spada also demonstrate how difficult the exercise is for the president, tacking between his home strategy and his need to respect some political correctness not to upset leaders from the West.

All the tactics, secret meetings and plans show a country where corruption is massive, a country where methods from the Communist era are not forgotten. We’re only 20 years after the fall of Caucescu. It’s a lot and not that much at the same time.

Spada brilliantly pictures how easy it is to manipulate people. We see how a population is quick to believe the worst of the Roma minority, how fast immoral politicians can turn a people against the ones they treat as second-class citizens, the ones that are “others”, “not like them”. Unfortunately, you don’t need a strong wind to fan the flames of fear and hatred. People naturally shy away from complex realities and they are always drawn to simple messages, even if simplistic thinking leads to violence and exclusion.

If I had read Spada in 2015, I would have looked at it like a novel set in a country with a rather young democracy, a country that has still work to do to get rid of the old guard and old fashioned ingrained methods. But I read it in 2018, after the Brexit referendum was launched for selfish political reasons, after the appalling pro-Brexit campaign and all the hatred that emerged afterwards. I read it after the election of a racist president in the US, after the extreme right parties have had frightening breakthroughs all over Europe. Hatred, the fear of “others”, of alterity and its use for base political tactics is what Spada is all about. As concerned Western citizens, we have to read this.

Marina Sofia tells me that Spada means dagger in Romanian. It’s the weapon used by the killer. It’s also the instrument used by the politicians and their cliques to slash the clothes of a fragile but oh so necessary democracy.

Highly recommended. Translation tragedy, unfortunately.

PS : Explanations about the French cover of the book. In French, a panier de crabes (literally a basket of crabs) is what you call in English a vipers’ nest. That’s a good image for the president’s entourage and the whole political/press small world described in this book. But in my opinion, it’s also a perfect drawing to picture the cancer of corruption and the lust for power of all the players of this dirty game.

The Little Town Where Time Stood Still by Bohumil Hrabal

March 24, 2018 14 comments

The Little Town Were Time Stood Still by Bohumil Hrabal (1985) French title: La petite ville où le temps s’arrêta. Translated from the Czech by Milena Braud.

Bohumil Hrabal (1914-1997) is a Czech writer considered as one of the best Czech writers of the 20th century. The Little Town Were Time Stood Still is my first encounter with his work and it was a pleasant journey into the past.

We are in a little town on the banks of the River Elbe, in the early 1930s. Our narrator is a child whose father Franci runs a brewery. His mother is a stay-at-home mom and his uncle Pepi lives with them. We don’t know how old our narrator is but when the book opens, he’s old enough to run around, slip into a bar to get a tattoo from a sailor.

It’s hard to describe this novel. It tells the tragic fate of this family as history catches with them. It starts during the Czech Republic between 1918 and 1935. We are after fall of the Austro-Hungarian empire and its domination over Bohemia and before the Nazis destructions followed by the Communist catastrophe. This little town has the same fate as Wilno, now Vilnius. It’s as if the Nazis and then the Communists sucked the life out of it. The River Elbe is a waterway to Hamburg, the little town’s harbor brings the world to its inhabitants. It brings life and during the Republic, the place was lively. When the Republic ended, it’s as if this city that was joyously feasting on life was put on a diet.

The narrator relates his years in this little town, his quotidian between a capricious and loud uncle and a mousy industrious father. It’s like Franci tries to even out Pepi’s eccentricities by being the exact opposite. The salt of the book lies in observing the different scenes the narrator shows us. The little town and its inhabitants come to life with their quirks, flaws and qualities. It’s like observing details on a peasant scene painted by Pieter Brugel the Elder. Lots of details, various characters in diverse situations that show everyday life. Hrabal has a great sense of humor which lightens the tragedy of this family and their town. It borders on burlesque sometimes and there’s a definite whiff of nostalgia.

Harbal grew up in a town like this and The Little Town Were Time Stood Still is part of a trilogy that starts with Cutting It Short and ends with Harlequin’s Millions. Highly recommended.

A word about the French cover. I don’t understand it at all. It’s a detail of the painting Australian Beach Pattern by Charles Meer. Frankly, I wonder what it’s got to do with the book. I prefer the English one, with the sailor who could be Uncle Pepi or the one with the city street. The Italian cover gives an idea of the narrator’s voice.

 

Doctor Glas by Hjalmar Söderberg

December 29, 2017 9 comments

Doctor Glas by Hjalmar Söderberg (1905) French title: Docteur Glas Translated from the Swedish by Marcellita de Molkte-Huitfeld and Ghislaine Lavagne.

Doctor Glas is a striking novella by Hjalmar Söderberg. It is the diary of the eponymous doctor from June 12th to October 7th, 1905. Dr Glas is a general practitioner in Stockholm. He’s a brilliant mind without social skills. He’s terribly lonely.

N’y a-t-il en dehors de moi personne qui soit seul au monde ? Moi, Tyko Gabriel Glas, docteur en médecine, à qui parfois il est donné d’aider les autres sans pouvoir s’aider soi-même, et qui, à trente-trois ans, n’a jamais connu de femme ? It makes me feel as if there’s no one in the world lonely at this moment but I. I, doctor of medicine Tyko Gabriel Glas, who sometimes helps others but has never been able to help himself, and who, on entering his thirty-fourth year of life, has never yet been with a woman.

Translated by David JC Barrett.

This quote comes from the first pages of the book. We know right away that Doctor Glas is an odd man with his own issues. In the first entry of his journal, he relates a promenade in the streets of Stockholm and his displeasure to run into Rev Gregorius, his patient and a nearby pastor. The man repulses him to the point of comparing him to a poisonous mushroom.

One day, Mrs Gregorius confides in him: her husband forces himself on her and she wonders if the good doctor couldn’t tell her husband that he should stop all sexual intercourse with her, for medical reasons, of course. The brave doctor is touched by her plea, a plea he’s ready to believe as he already hates Rev Gregorius. He agrees to help her and he gets more and more involved in her life, to the point of falling in love with her, even if he doesn’t want to acknowledge his feelings. She makes him cross lines, think about crossing more lines and question medical boundaries and his society’s hypocrisy.

Day after day, we read the thoughts of this unconventional doctor who writes about sensitive topics. He raises ethical questions that are still unresolved today. He wonders about birth control and abortion, not that he thinks that women should have the right to do what they want with their body or choose their time to become a mother. No, he thinks that there are already enough people on earth as it is. He also wonders about euthanasia: shouldn’t people be allowed to decide to die, especially if they have a terminal illness?

These thoughts were already in him but Mrs Gregorius’s story pushes them on the top of his mind. What is the ethical thing to do? He’s not ready to cross all lines but he can’t help thinking about these lines.

Doctor Glas was a scandal when it was published and it’s easy to understand why. Söderberg is brave enough to write about ethical questions from a doctor’s point of view. His character is not warm, someone you feel compassion for. He’s icy and perhaps his steely vision of men allows him to think out of the conventional path. Rev Gregorius, seen from Glas’s eyes, is repulsive. His wife is a lot younger than him and she’s not a sympathetic character either. Sometimes I had the impression she was manipulating Glas to be as free as possible from her husband to enjoy her relationship with her lover. It’s ambiguous.

Doctor Glas is remarkable for its directness. The doctor writes boldly about sex, death and the place of the church in the Swedish society. I don’t think Söderberg used the literary form to promote his ideas. He wrote the portray of a trouble man confronted to a complicated ethical question. How will he react? He has to choose to help Mrs Gregorius or not and this leads him to delicate questions.

I thought that Doctor Glas was a brilliant piece of literature. It’s concise and gets to the point. It’s less than 150 pages long and manages to draw the picture of a single individual while raising important ethical questions.

Highly recommended.

German Lit Month : Ice Moon by Jan Costin Wagner

November 11, 2017 13 comments

Ice Moon by Jan Costin Wagner (2003) French title : Lune de glace. Translated from the German by Stéphanie Lux.

As I’m now embarked in Miklós Bánffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy, Ice Moon by Jan Costin Wagner will be my only contribution to Caroline and Lizzy’s German Lit Month.

Ice Moon is the first instalment of the crime fiction series featuring Kimmo Joentaa, a Finish police officer. Jan Costin Wagner is German and lives half the year in Finland with his Finnish wife. This explains the Finnish setting of his books. We are in Turku, a city located in the South-West of Finland. It opens with a heartbreaking scene: Kimmo Joentaa is at the hospital where his young wife is dying of cancer. The first moments of the book are dedicated to her death and the devastation that invades every nook and corner of Kimmo’s being.

At the same time, a woman is discovered dead in her sleep. The police station in Turku is in a turmoil and a bit overwhelmed with the investigation. Against his officer’s wishes, Joentaa decides to go back to work soon after his wife’s death, partly to be occupied and tame his sadness and partly because he wants to solve this crime.

The book alternates between Kimmo’s and the murderer’s point of view. The reader knows from the start who did it and reads through the race between the police and the murderer. Will the police catch him before he commits other crimes?

I’m not too fond of books were the murderer has a mental illness or is obviously unbalanced. I think it’s an easy device. I prefer crime fiction books that either explore the evil inside of us or show how a bad decision can lead you to crime. I’d rather read about perfectly sane murderers who act badly out of greed, to protect themselves or whatever but who are not pushed by a mental illness. I think it’s more interesting to question our dark side than to read about a “crazy” serial killer. This side of Ice Moon didn’t appeal to me but it’s more a question of preference in terms of crime fiction in general than a problem with the book itself.

I was more disturbed by Kimmo Joentaa as a character. His grief consumes his days and his nights. He tries to cope with his wife’s death, with his solitude in their home. He’s a difficult man to understand. His wife grounded him in an unhealthy way. He didn’t seem to be a whole man before her and now that she’s gone, his balance is challenged. There are some disturbing passages where Kimmo enters into a weird connection with the murderer that helps him understands the criminal’s motives and modus operandi and it made me ill-at-ease. I’m not sure I want to be in Kimmo’s head for another book.

All in all, it’s well-written even if it’s cold, maybe due to the setting, maybe due to the original language. Books translated from the German often seem a little cold and uptight to me, I can’t explain why. Plot-wise it holds together but it didn’t quite work for me. It felt as weird as its book cover. There’s another review by Guy here.

Have you read it? If yes, did you like it?

Portuguese lit: The Memorables by Lídia Jorge

September 10, 2017 21 comments

The Memorables by Lídia Jorge (2014) French title: Les Mémorables. Translated by Geneviève Leibrich.

Elle serrait contre elle la copie des plans dessinés par la main de celui qui, trente ans plus tôt, avait mis en marche cinq mille hommes contre un régime décrépit, un de ces régimes si long et si séniles qu’ils laissent du fumier sur la terre pour plusieurs siècles. She held to her chest a copy of the maps designed by the man who, thirty years before, had led five thousand men against a decrepit regime. It was one of those long and senile regimes that left manure on earth for several centuries.

“She” is Ana Maria Machado, a young Portuguese journalist who works for CBS in Washington DC. The five thousand men mentioned in this quote are the military men who participated in the coup d’état on April 25th, 1974 in Lisbon, the one that led to the Carnation Revolution and the fall of the Portuguese dictatorship.

After reportages in war zones, Ana Maria’s boss asks her to go back to Lisbon and film a documentary about the Carnation Revolution and the miracle of this peaceful revolution where the military takes power to bring democracy to their country.

Ana Maria is reluctant to go back to Lisbon where she has unresolved issues with her father, Ántonio Machado, a famous political editorialist whose column always proved to be insightful. He was also close to the people who did the revolution. Ana Maria needs a crew for her mission and rekindles a working relationship with Margarida and Miguel Ângelo, two reporters she knew in journalism school.

Ana Maria decides against telling her father about her project, mostly because she doesn’t want him to interfere with her vision of the events. In Ántonio’s office, she borrows a picture taken on 21st of August 1975, in a restaurant, the Memories. This picture portrays all the people who were decisive participants in the revolution and close witnesses of the events. This photo will be the Ariadne thread of the documentary.

Ana Maria and her friends want to reconstruct the minutes this 25 of April 1974 and understand what everyone did and when. They will go and interview these key actors or their widow to discover what they did that day, how they felt, how they lived afterwards and how they reflect on the revolution, thirty years later.

Lídia Jorge autopsies the military coup that brought democracy to her country but more importantly, she questions what happened to the major players of the Carnation Revolution. Her book was published in 2014, for the fortieth anniversary of the 25 of April 1974 events. Ana Maria writes her story six years after she did her documentary and what she narrates happened in 2004, for the thirtieth anniversary of the revolution. Symbolic years. Time and remembrance are important in her book.

I wanted to read about the Carnation Revolution and it gave me a better vision of what happened and how extraordinary it was to have such a smooth transition to democracy. Lídia Jorge points out two disconcerting facts about these events: one, the major actors of the military coup were never properly thanked and none had a glorious career after that. And two, they were forgotten from the public. This is very different from what Petros Markaris describes about Greece in Bread, Education, Freedom or what Yasmina Khadra writes about Algeria in Dead Man’s ShareBoth Markaris and Khadra explain how the actors of the country’s liberation cashed on their being on the right side, either during the decisive demonstration against the Greek regime or against the French. In these two countries, these men became untouchable heroes, grabbed on power and didn’t let it go.

According to The Memorables, no heroes were born from the Carnation Revolution in Portugal. Ana Maria knew the men on the photo because her parents gravitated in their circle. Margarida and Miguel Ângelo had to research them. Lídia Jorge wants to celebrate them, to remind them to the Portuguese and show how ungrateful the Republic was towards them. None of them benefited from their act.

In addition to the questioning about the place they have in the Portuguese collective memory, Lídia Jorge muses over the impact of living through such historical events. How do you go back to normal after that? How does one leave their glorious days behind and go on with a mundane everyday life? How do you survive to the I-was-there-and-part-of-it syndrome? There is a before and an after the 25th April 1974 for all the Portuguese who were old enough at the time to grasp the importance of this day, but for the people who prepared the coup and succeeded, how does the rest of your life measure up to this? (I’ve always wondered how Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr survived to being a Beatle)

Ana Maria’s personal story is also linked to the 25th of April. That day, her mother, Machado’s lover, was supposed to fly back to her country, Belgium. The beginning and the excitement of the Carnation Revolution convinced to stay in Portugal. So, Ana Maria’s existence is also an outcome of the revolution. As mentioned before, her parents were close to the new power and knew the key players. Coming back to Lisbon is a personal journey for her. She’s estranged from her father and never saw her mother again after she divorced her father when she was twelve. She doesn’t want him to ask questions about her current assignment and therefore avoids asking questions herself. They live together but barely talk to each other. This added a dimension to the novel.

What can I say about my response to The Memorables? Honestly, sometimes I found it very tedious to read. When I read Dubliners, I wondered Do you need to be Irish to love Dubliners by James Joyce? because there were so many precise political details in the short stories that I felt I was missing vital clues in the stories. I felt the same here and I wondered if I needed to be Portuguese to fully understand the meaning of The Memorables. All the historical characters mentioned in the novel through a nickname are pathetic in the interviews with Ana Maria and her friends. It’s puzzling. They all have issues and are eccentric. How real are they? It made the book difficult to read and I don’t know how much is true and how much comes from the novelist’s licence. On top of that, Ana Maria is not exactly a warm character and it’s hard to root for her. And that’s probably the major problem I had with The Memorables. I was never fully engaged in the reporters’ quest. It could have been suspenseful and it wasn’t, except for the last 100 pages when Ana Maria uncovers her father’s secrets.

All in all, I’m glad I read it but it was not an agreeable read. I’d love to hear about your response to it. Alas, this is not available in English so none of my English-speaking followers will have read it. So, I’d be glad to hear from French and Portuguese readers who might have read it.

Street Art in Lisbon. Salgueiro Maia, member of the MFA, the “Armed Forces Movement”

Europeana: A Brief History of the Twentieth Century by Patrik Ouředník

June 30, 2017 11 comments

Europeana. A Brief History of the Twentieth Century by Patrik Ouředník (2001) French title: Europeana. Une brève histoire du XXè siècle. Translated from the Czech by Marianne Canavaggio.

Patrik Ouředník is a Czech writer born in 1957. He emigrated to France in 1984. He translated Rabelais, Alfred Jarry, Raymond Queneau and Samuel Beckett into Czech. Despite his excellent French and his living in France, he still writes his books in Czech. I understand that it must be hard to write in another language but I wonder why his books are not self-translated into French.

I bought Europeana. A Brief History of the Twentieth Century after reading Ouředník’s literary UFO, Ad Acta. As its title says it, Europeana is a subjective/objective history of Europe in the 20th century. Why subjective/objective? Subjective, because Ouředník decides which facts he relates and in which order. Objective because all the facts are true, no fake news to make the buzz here.

To give you an idea of his style and his tone, here’s the first page of the book. (English translation by Gerald Turner)

The Americans who fell in Normandy in 1944 were tall men measuring 173 centimeters on average, and if they were laid head to foot they would measure 38 kilometers. The Germans were tall too, while the tallest of all were the Senegalese fusiliers in the First World War who measured 176 centimeters, and so they were sent into battle on the front lines in order to scare the Germans. It was said of the First World War that people in it fell like seeds and the Russian Communists later calculated how much fertilizer a square kilometer of corpses would yield and how much they would save on expensive foreign fertilizers if they used the corpses of traitors and criminals instead of manure. And the English invented the tank and the Germans invented gas, which was known as yperite because the Germans first used it near the town of Ypres, although apparently that was not true, and it was also called mustard because it stung the nose like Dijon mustard, and that was apparently true, and some soldiers who returned home after the war did not want to eat Dijon mustard again.

The 150 pages of the book are made of the same cloth. Europeana is the accumulation of odd and random facts. They are told in this playful tone but some of them are dreadful. Ouředník covers the twentieth century in all aspects. He mixes singular information, excerpts from surveys and historical facts. It blends sociology and history. It puts the stress on all kinds of events that built the 20th century in an organized / disorganized kind of way. It questions the idea of history, how we tell it, how we highlight some facts and not others and how this choice affects the global picture that we have of an era. Ouředník does not concentrate only on politics and wars but also on the changes in mores, on progress in science. He reminds us that art and pop culture are part of our history.

His being from Eastern Europe brings another angle to Europe’s history. He doesn’t gloss over the brutal communist dictatorships in Eastern countries and that’s fortunate. Despite mentioning culture, science and mores, the 20th century remains a century of horrors. It’s full of mass killings and dictatorships. Italy, Spain and then the Nazi plague followed by the Communist cholera. Totalitarianism bloomed in this century, leaving millions of victims in its wake. This is not new. What’s new is how he assembles facts and how he lines them up like beads on a necklace. It’s almost absurd, ludicrous and it’s not a surprise coming from a man who translated Rabelais, Jarry and Beckett.

It looks absurd but everything is true. We’re not reading Ubu Rex a king we know never existed. We’re reading true facts. In this age of Brexit and Fake News, Europeana is a good way to remember why the EU was created and why journalism and facts matter.

I have one reservation, though. I enjoyed reading Europeana and it’s good to read it in small doses because the number of facts becomes overwhelming after a while. It’s also a reminder that the accumulation of information saturates the brain. Things blend and we lose our capacity to absorb what we read and process it. We lose our ability to be upset, to oppose to Something because it’s soon pushed to the back of our mind by other information. Now, I’d be totally unable to quote exact facts from the book. Either we consider it’s one of the book’s weakness or we consider that it’s one of its strengths because it shows how limited we are in remembering data.

Has anyone read Europeana too? If yes, what did you think of it?

The Duck Hunt by Hugo Claus

June 11, 2017 8 comments

The Duck Hunt by Hugo Claus (1950) French title: La chasse aux canards. Translated into French from the Dutch (Belgium) by Elly Overziers et Jean Raine.

I’m terribly late with my billets and here I am in June, writing about a novel I read back in January. I am overworked and I don’t have enough time to keep up with everything but let’s be honest, as far as this billet is concerned, I was dragging my feet.

The Duck Hunt is the bleakest story I’ve read this year, it’s even worse than Caribou Island. We’re in the early 1920s in the Dutch speaking countryside of Belgium. The Metsiers live in an isolated farm. Here’s the picture: the father was killed during a duck hunt, the mother has an affair with Peter, the farm hand; Yannie, the mildly-retarded son is head over heels in love with his…sister Ana and the said daughter and sister just broke things off with another farmer, the Fat Smelders. Then Ana meets Jim Braddock, a black American soldier stationed in her village. That’s the cheery setting of The Duck Hunt.

Hugo Claus alternates short chapters, all one-person narratives. We see the events through everyone’s eyes: Peter, Ma, Ana, Yannie, Jim Braddock and even Jules, another villager. The American soldier is the only one who’s called by his full name, probably because he’s the stranger and the foreigner.

Although I admire Claus’s craft –he manages to pack a lot in a short 137 pages – I can’t say I enjoyed or even like The Duck Hunt. I have trouble liking books set in grim villages where unhealthy relationships are born from too much isolation and too much proximity. It gives an unpleasant vibe of consanguinity mixed with crass ignorance. It made me shudder and I wasn’t keen on finishing it and I’ve been procrastinating the billet ever since, reluctant to go back to this disagreeable atmosphere. It’s like The Passport by Herta Müller, a book I really disliked.

It’s obviously a good piece of literature but it’s not what I like to read. After reading this and A Cool Million by Nathanael West, I bought The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend by Katarina Bivald because I was in desperate need of a feel-good novel. I’ve just read it and the billet will hopefully come soon.

Three short stories from Bacacay by Witold Gombrowicz

May 12, 2017 15 comments

Three Short Stories from Babacay by Witold Gombrowicz. (1928) French version : Le festin chez la Comtesse Fritouille et autres nouvelles. Translated from the Polish by Georges Sédir.

French publisher Folio has this collection of little books at 2€ each to make reader discover forgotten texts or try new writers. They usually are about 120 pages long and cover various types of literature. I bought Le festin chez la Comtesse Fritouille because I’d never read anything by Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz and I wanted to try one of his books.

My copy is a collection of three short stories coming from Bacacay, a larger collection of Gombrowicz’s short stories. This Folio 2€ includes A Premeditated Crime, Dinner at Countess Pavahoke’s and Virginity. The three were written in 1928. The French translation by Georges Sédir follows the translation codes that consist in translating names even if it’s not necessary. This is how you end up with characters named Antoine and Cécile in A Premeditated Crime or a countess Fritouille instead of Pavahoke. According to Google Translate, Pavahoke does mean Fritouille in French but I have no idea what it means and the internet is clueless too.

A Premeditated Crime is the story of a judge who arrives at the estate of Ignace K. They were old schoolmates and have a business meeting about an inheritance affair. When the judge arrives at the estate, he discovers that Ignace K. just died from a heart attack. The judge being a judge can’t help wondering if this death is natural or not. From then on, he’ll do his best to find everything strange and prove that Mr K. was murdered. Is the judge delusional or was Mr K. really killed in cold blood?

Dinner at Countess Pavahoke’s is told by a bourgeois who is invited to the Countess Pavahoke’s exclusive Friday dinners. These dinners are reserved to special guests and are the days where they only eat simple meals made of vegetables. This would be considered as stingy if it were organized by common people but since it’s set up by an aristocrat, it’s fashionable. Follows the description of a cruel and extraordinary diner but writing more about it would spoil the short story.

Virginity is the strange tale of Alice and Paul. They have been engaged for four years and Paul is just back from China to finally marry his fiancée. Paul is obsessed with Alice’s virginity and innocence. She’s 21 but what he loves most about her is this feeling of purity. But Alice’s mind is not as pure as Paul’s would like. I must confess I didn’t understand where Gombrowicz wanted to go with this story. If someone can enlighten me, comments and explanations are welcome.

I enjoyed Gombrowicz’s wits (and I’m not going to try to say this aloud, my French tongue is already in a twist) and his curious ideas for stories. He has a great sense of dark humour.

This is one of my contribution to Marina Sofia’s #EU27 Project – Reading the European Union.

 

My Life as a Penguin by Katarina Mazetti

March 18, 2017 11 comments

My Life as a Penguin by Katarina Mazetti (2008) Not available in English French title: Ma vie de pingouin. Translated from the Swedish by Lena Grumbach.

After finishing A Cool Million by Nathanael West, I was so upset that I needed a fluffy book. Katarina Mazetti is one of my go-to writers when I want nice feel-good novels. I’ve already read The Guy Next Grave or Benny & Shrimp for English readers and its follow-up Family Grave. I’ve even seen the theatre adaptation of Benny & Shrimp. I also indulged in the Linnea Trilogy (Between God and Me, it’s Over; Between the Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf, It’s Over and The End is Only the Beginning) which I didn’t like as much as Benny & Shrimp.

So, after the very depressing Cool Million, My Life as a Penguin seemed a good reading choice, and it was.

My Life as a Penguin starts in the Roissy Charles de Gaulle airport where about fifty Swedish passengers are embarking on a flight to Santiago in Chile where they are to embark on a cruise in Antarctica. Wilma has never really left Sweden and she’s struggling to get to the right gate at the airport. Honestly, anyone who’s ever flown out of this Parisian airport feels her pain. Tomas is already there, brooding but willing to help Wilma. Alba is in her seventies, she’s already travelled a lot and she loves observing humans and animals. Wilma, Tomas and Alba will be our main narrator during the cruise.

All the travelers have a goal with this trip. You’d think the first aim would be to see the world and enjoy nature but no. Wilma sees it as a challenge and we discover why later in the book. Tomas decided for a trip to Antarctica to commit suicide. Alba wants to observe the flora but also the fauna of her fellow travelers. A couple of women are there to catch men. A few men are birdwatchers and really intend to see the local birds in their natural habitat.

You’ll find what you’d expect in a book where people who don’t know each other have to live in close quarters. They observe each other, gossip, interact. Friendships blossom, couples get together. Wilma’s voice is warm and I wanted to find out why she embarked on such a cruise, what her story was. Tomas is depressed because his wife left him and moved out to California with her new husband. With her living so far away with their children, Tomas doesn’t get to see them as much as before and he feels like he has lost his children too. Wilma always sees the glass half full and Tomas always sees it half empty. Their opposite vision of life fuels their interactions. Here’s Tomas thinking about Wilma’s attitude:

Et puis elle a une attitude tellement positive devant tout, c’est merveilleux et risible à la fois! Si Wilma se retrouvait en enfer, elle déclarerait tout de suite qu’elle adore les feux de camp et demanderait au diable s’il n’a pas quelques saucisses à griller. And she has such a positive attitude towards everything; it’s wonderful and at the same time ludicrous. If Wilma ended up in hell, she’d immediately declare that she loves camp fires and would ask the devil if he didn’t have sausages for a barbeque.

Alba is a quirky character; she’s never without her beloved notebook where she gathers her observations of human nature and writes a comparison between people and animals.

I also enjoyed reading about their excursions in Antarctica. The weather was fierce and far from the usual sunny cruise. I liked that Katarina Mazetti didn’t choose a setting in the Caribbean or more plausible for European travelers, a cruise on the Mediterranean Sea. It is a way to avoid clichés and it was welcome.

Katarina Mazetti writes in a light mode, always on a fine line between serious and humorous. Her tone suggests that even if life is tough sometimes, difficulties are better handled with a bit of courage and a healthy sense of humor. Even if it’s not an immortal piece of literature, I was curious about this group’s journey and was looking forward to discovering how the trip would end for all of them. Would it be a life-changing experience or just another holiday?

N.N. by Gyula Krúdy. Translation Tragedy

August 31, 2015 26 comments

N.N. by Gyula Krúdy (1922) Translated from the Hungarian into French by Ibolya Virág.

Il est nécessaire que chacun ait sa propre cigale dont les chants et les bercements lui font oublier toute sa vie. It is necessary that everyone has their own cicada whose songs and lullabies make them forget their whole life.

Krudy_NNN.N. stands for nomen nescio and is used to describe someone anonymous or undefined. It refers to Gyula Krúdy who was the natural child of an attorney descended from minor nobility and a servant. He was born in 1878 in Nyíregyháza, Hungary. His parents eventually got married, after their seventh child was born. Gyula Krúdy lived in Budapest where he was famous for being a gambler, a womanizer, a “prince of night”. He’s one of Hungary’s most famous writers. He wrote more than eighty-six novels and thousands of short stories. He contributed to the most important newspapers and reviews of his time, Nyugat included. He died in 1933. Sadly, most of his novels aren’t available in translation.

I usually don’t give biographical elements about writers, anyone can research them and they are, most of the time, not directly relevant with the book I’m writing about. It’s different here as N.N. is autobiographical. Gyula Krúdy wrote it during the winter 1919, after the Austro-Hungarian Empire fell apart. He was 41 at the time. N.N. is the story of a man who, after being famous in Budapest, comes home to Eastern Hungary and wanders between dream and reality on his childhood land. He resuscitates his youth, the people, the places, the customs.

It’s lyrical, poetic, full of wonderful images. I’m sharing with you several quotes, I tried to translate them as best I could but honestly, my English is not good enough for Krúdy’s prose. If a native English speaker who can read French has other suggestions for the translations, don’t hesitate to write them in the comments.

On eût dit qu’une femme géante jetait sa jupe sur le monde lorsque la nuit tombait.

 

When the night came, it was as if a giant woman spread her skirt on the world.
Les jardins faisaient des rêves profonds à la manière des vieillards qui rêvent de leur jeunesse, d’étreinte amoureuse, de secrets sur lesquels les jardins des petites villes en savent long.

 

Gardens were dreaming deeply like old people who dream about their youth, love embraces or about secrets that gardens in small towns know a lot about.
Les étoiles d’été regardaient le monde avec une douce indulgence au travers des feuillages épais des chênes.

 

The summer stars looked at the world with sweet benevolence through the oaks’ thick foliage.
Sóvágó savait que des vents glacés hurlaient dans les montagnes, que les arbres restaient cruellement silencieux face aux plaintes désespérées de l’homme, que le prunier n’apprenait à parler que lorsqu’on taillait en lui une potence pour les sans-espoir.

 

Sóvágó knew that icy winds howled in the mountains, that trees remained cruelly silent faced with the desperate moans of mankind; that the plum tree only started to talk when someone used it to carve gallows for the hopeless.

It’s laced with nostalgia. It’s the spleen of a man who is not so young anymore, who has lived through a terrible war and whose country is dismembered. His old world does not exist anymore. He’s the cicada of the novel. He’s had his summer in Budapest, he’s had fun and now it’s over.

Krúdy describes the inn where he used to have a drink and listen to travelers and Tsiganes. He loved listening to their stories of their lives on the road. He remembers his grand-parents, his first love Juliska, his departure to Budapest. More than his former life, he depicts the seasons, the nature and the old habits.

He comes back to Juliska who now has a small farm and meets with the son they had together and that he had never met. He comes back to a simple peasant life and conjures up the smells, the landscape, the food and the cozy homes. His style is musical and evocative. It’s as if the dreamlike style of Klimt’s paintings were mixed with the themes of old Dutch masters.

It’s a difficult book to summarize, it needs to be experienced.

The picture on the cover of my book is a portrait of Gyula Krúdy. Given the theme of the book and the style of this portrait, it’s hard not to think about Marcel Proust here. However, even if the two writers were contemporaries, their writing styles differ. Krúdy’s style reminded me more of Alain Fournier but Krúdy is more anchored in reality.

Let’s face it, this is a terrible Translation Tragedy. (For newcomers, a Translation Tragedy is a fantastic book available in French but not translated into English. Or vice-versa) It seems like something Pushkin Press or NYRB Classics would publish, though.

A word about my copy of N.N. There are useful notes to give information about Hungarian references, from the names of writers or cities to the race of dogs. (I wish they’d do that with Japanese literature as well) The font used is named Janson, as an homage to a typeface created in the 17th century by the Transylvanian Miklós Misztótfalusi. The only flaw of this book as an object is that the pages are a bit hard to turn, and it’s a bit tiring for the hand to keep the book open.

I have read N.N. with Bénédicte from the blog Passage à l’Est. Check out her billets about Eastern Europe literature.

Danish disappointment

August 7, 2015 16 comments

This Should Be Written in the Present Tense by Helle Helle (2011). French title: Au présent. (Translated by Catherine Lise Dubost.)

Helle_Helle_EnglishI wanted to read contemporary Danish fiction. There aren’t many Danish books on the shelves in bookstores and I’d read a review of This Should Be Written in the Present Tense on Jacqui’s blog. I thought “Why not?”. I bought the English translation because I wanted it on e-reader form and the French translation is only available in hard cover.

This Should Be Written in the Present Tense is about Dorte who moves in a new home near the train station in Glumso, near Copenhagen. Dorte has enrolled at the university in Copenhagen and she commutes to the city but never goes to class. We are in her head as she recalls scenes from her past and talks about her aunt Dorte, her former lover Per…

I managed to read half of the book before abandoning it. I stopped reading it when started having uncharitable thoughts about the main character. In my mind, I called her Dorte-Torte which isn’t nice. And I had the soon-to-be-abandoned book syndrome: walk around the kindle to avoid picking it up, browsing through the shelves to decide which book would be the next…

Dorte is dull and passive and I have a hard time with passive characters. I didn’t care about Per and the likes. I was bored out of my mind by repetitive meal descriptions:

We had goat’s cheese and baguette with red wine, and she made coffee in a French press and heated up the milk.

And this one:

I was going to have meatloaf, but when I stood in the kitchen with the minced meat and the box of eggs I decided I couldn’t be bothered. I boiled the mince and had it in a pitta bread with a bit of cucumber.

I decided I couldn’t be bothered either. God knows the French are obsessed with food. “How was the food?” must be in the Top Three Questions someone asks you when you come back from holiday. But in contemporary literature, it’s rather toned down except if the book is about a chef.

It reminded me of a song by Vincent Delerm. Two people are watching a play by Shakespeare at the Avignon festival. He sings that there are no costumes, no acting, no moves so they thought “why not no public, after all?” and left. I thought there was no plot, no catching characters and if I was about to read about my kind of mundane everyday life, I’d rather live it than read about it.

Helle Helle is a renowned writer in Denmark, she won prizes and This Should Be Written in the Present Tense was awarded the Prix des Libraires in France. I’m not going to say it’s a bad book but that it didn’t work for me. Obviously some readers better informed than me found it excellent. If you want to read something positive about this novel, here’s Jacqui’s review.

 

Bread, Education, Freedom by Petros Markaris

July 30, 2015 19 comments

Bread, Education, Freedom by Petros Markaris (2012). French title: Pain, éducation, liberté. Translated from the Greek by Michel Volkovitch.

J’ai envie de monter les escaliers quatre à quatre. Mais l’immeuble a un ascenseur. Et le Grec moyen prend toujours l’ascenseur. A la réflexion, ce qui nous a démolis, c’est un ascenseur trop rapide.

I want to leap up the stairs. But the building has a lift. And the average Greek always uses the lift. On second thought, an exceedingly swift lift is what destroyed us.

Someone lent me this crime fiction novel by Petros Markaris just as the last big crisis between Greece and the EU took place.

Markaris_painBread, Education, Freedom was written in 2012 and it opens on 2013 New Year’s Eve. On January 1st, 2014, Greece will come back to the Drachma, leaving the Euro behind. Markaris describes the changes it does to people. Of course, that’s dystopian fiction and this has not happened.

Superintendant Kostas Charitos has just learnt that he won’t get any wages during the next three months. The Greek State cannot pay them anymore. Everybody is still present at the station, doing their job, though.

As the head of the crime squad in Athens, he’s called to the scene when Yerassismos Demertzis is murdered. When the police arrive on the premises, a construction site near the Olympic Games stadium, they start investigating. A phone set on the victim’s body rings and a recorded message says the slogan “Bread, education, freedom”.

This is the slogan used by the students who fought in the Athens Polytechnic Uprising in November 1973. This uprising was repressed by the Regime of the Colonels but the people supported the students and it eventually led to the end of the regime.

The victim was a key figure of this movement. When a second victim appears, following the same modus operandi and also an important participant of the uprising, Charitos wonders who is trying to kill heroes from the Greek revolution.

Petros Markaris was born in 1937; he was an adult during the dictatoship of the Colonels and witnessed the birth of Greece’s new democracy in 1974. The plot of this novel is straightforward. Don’t expect sophisticated twists and turns. It’s still a fascinating read because it gives you a picture and an analysis of today’s Greece on several aspects.

First there’s a glimpse in Charitos’s private life and Markaris describes how the Greek society lives with the massive economic crisis.

And then, there’s the in-depth analysis of the reasons of the crisis. Bread, Education, Freedom is the last volume of a trilogy about the economic crisis in Greece. This one focuses on the generation who instigated the fall of the Colonels. According to Markaris, their aura is so great that they are untouchable. They trusted powerful positions in the country, becoming entrepreneurs, deans and heads of unions. They took the power and created networks of clients by granting positions and favors. Their revolutionary past is such that they cannot be criticized. Their ideology is the leading voice of the country and there’s no credible opposition, as the right wing is suspect of complicity the the old regime.

Markaris describes something close to what Khadra says about Algeria in Dead Man’s Share. The leaders of the fight against the colonizer or the dictator that ruled their country earned so much prestige in that battle that they can do whatever they want. They took advantage of their past to cash in public works contracts or influential positions in the administration or the unions. The power was confiscated by people whose competences were assessed through their record during the fight for democracy. They made a dictatorship fall to replace it by an oligarchy based on credentials during the uprising and not based on actual competences.

They got drunk on power and the country’s got a bloody hangover.

If someone who’s totally clueless about the importance of literature asks you “What’s the use of literature?”, lend them this novel. Sure, it’s not the greatest piece of literature from a stylistic point of view. It’s not innovative in that sense but it fulfills another purpose. Markaris helps you understand his country and gives you another vision of the crisis that shatters Greece than the one you hear about in the media. For some reason, I can’t read non-fiction. I’ll never read a lengthy essay about Greece’s economical collapse and the reasons why it happened. So I’m glad that writers like Markaris are up to the challenge and decide to use crime fiction to make us see the situation through different lenses.

Bread, education, freedom enlightened and entertained me. It left me a bit desperate for the Greeks and firmly decided to read the two other novels of the trilogy to learn more about the two other reasons why Greece has reached this terrible cul-de-sac. Markaris sees hope in the younger generation and believes that hard times feed creativity and will force Greek’s youth to start again on the right footing. Let’s hope so.

Danish humour

July 26, 2015 16 comments

Little treatise of the privileges of a mature man and other nocturnal thoughts by Flemming Jensen (2011) Not available in English, I think. French title: Petit traité des privilèges de l’homme mûr et autres réflexions nocturnes. (Translated from the Danish by Andreas Saint Bonnet.)

Aveu réalisteLe quotient intellectuel global sur terre est constant.

Il n’y a que la population qui augmente

Realistic confessionThe global intellectual quotient on earth is steady.

Only the population increases.

The narrator of Jensen’s chronicles is a mature man. His bladder doesn’t last a full night now, so he has to get up at night and he takes advantage of these nocturnal moments to think and have a little snack. Because, as he says,

Bon sang, si on n’avait pas le droit de se faire un casse-croûte nocturne, pourquoi y aurait-il de la lumière dans le frigo ? Damn it, if you weren’t allowed to have a nightly snack, why would there be light in the fridge?

JensenSnacking at night is an art. He’s on a diet so he has to be silent not to wake up his wife and be wise in what food he eats so that she doesn’t realize there isn’t as much left as should be. He explains how he sneaks out of their bedroom, lurks into the kitchen, doesn’t use the light bulbs but candles to avoid detection. The whole ritual is hilarious.

Our narrator will discuss light philosophical matters, talk about his children and grand-children, the EU, the war in Irak, religion, TV shows and all kinds of topics that go through his mind. Jensen has a great sense of humour, I laughed out loud lots of times. He’s famous in Denmark for his one-man-shows and his sketches for the TV and the radio. The reader can feel it in the way it is written. It could be a one-man-show. (For French readers, it sounds like a show by Gad Elmaleh.)

It’s full of funny passages, aphorisms, rants and hilarious suggestions.

Sur la foi.Les gens très religieux pèchent tout autant que nous autres. Leur religion leur interdit simplement de le savourer. About faith.Very religious people sin as much as us. Their religion forbids them to take pleasure in it, that’s all.

It’s not the book of the century but it’s entertaining and funny. Sometimes we just need a good laugh.

Book Club 2015-2016 : The list

June 21, 2015 39 comments

book_club_2We will be reading our last book from this year’s Book Club. It’s Going to Meet the Man by James Baldwin. If you want to join us, I’ll post about it at the end of July and I’ll be happy to discuss it with you.

This week-end we’ve selected twelve novels for our 2015-2016 Book Club and a bonus book for July 2016. Our tour starts in August 2015 and ends in July 2016. We’ve tried to pick books from different genres, different times and different countries. This year, we have four French novels and mostly European writers.  Now, what you want to see: THE LIST.

Book_Club_1The Last Frontier by Howard Fast is published by Gallmeister, gem-finder extraordinaire. Fast relates the story of the Cheyenne Indians in the 1870s, and their bitter struggle to flee from the Indian Territory in Oklahoma back to their home in Wyoming and Montana. I expect unpleasant scenes but it seems a good and enlightening read.

After this journey to the West, we’ll be back in France to read Heureux les heureux by Yasmina Reza. I loved her play Comment vous racontez la partie and Guy enjoyed Happy Are the Happy which is a good omen for me.

Lebanese writer’s Toufic Youssef Aouad is spelled Tawfiq Yusuf Awwad and I loved his excellent Deat in Beirut. Le pain (Bread) is set in 1916 and is considered as the first “real” Lebanese novel. It has just been translated into French by Fifi Abou dib, Awwad’s grand-daughter.

Book_Club_2I don’t need to present Crimes by Ferdinand von Schirach, it’s been reviewed a few times already. I discovered him through German Lit Month and I will be reading it for this year’s German Lit Month if it is organized.

Moriarty will be another genre and I expect an easy and entertaining read. Let’s hope it will meet my expectations.

I’m happy to have Agostino by Moravia on our list. I loved Contempt. Guy’s and Jacqui’s reviews confirmed I’ll probably like Agostino. I’m also curious to see how it compares to Joyce Maynard’s Labor Day.

Book_Club_3I’m excited to have Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb. Hungarian literature never let me down and I enjoyed The Pendragon Legend.

Our next book will be another journey, quite different from Szerb’s, though. N’aie pas peur si je t’enlace by Fulvio Ervas isn’t available in English, sorry. It relates the trip a father takes with his autistic son for his 18th birthday. They will travel through the USA and South-America on a Harley Davidson. It’s based on a true story.

After our little adventure in America, we’ll be back in Hungary for Colours and Years by Margit Kaffka. This novel was published in 1912 and it reveals the life of women at the time in Hungary and it has a feminist ring which appeals to me.

Book_Club_4In Un barrage contre le Pacifique, Marguerite Duras tells us a story based upon her life in Indochina. Life is tough for a woman in the French colonies, in a society made by men and for men.

Un beau ténébreux by Julien Gracq will be made into a play in a few months. It drew our attention to the novel. I’ve never read Gracq, I don’t know what to expect but I’m happy to try a new writer.

For July, Jacqui inspired me with Le rendez-vous de Venise by Philippe Beaussant. When I read her review, I knew I wanted to read it and explore the connection I felt to Proust’s Du côté de chez Swann. I’m glad my fellow Book Club members agreed to it.

Her review of The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald gave me another reading idea. It’s the bonus read for the year. As an avid reader, I have a fondness for books about bookshops.

That’s all folks.

If you’ve read some of these books or want to read them, share your thoughts in the comments. If you want to join us one month or the other, feel free. There’s no rule, just read whatever you want and post about it (or not) whenever you want. Here’s the schedule:

Liste

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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