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.
We 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: 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.|
This 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 (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.
On 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.
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.
I 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?
Salvation of a Saint by Keigo Higashino (2008) French title: Un café maison.
I don’t remember where I’ve discovered Keigo Higashino although I’m sure it’s through a book blog. Anyway. This is my contribution to Tony’s January in Japan and guess what, there’s an article about Higashino just here.
Salvation of a Saint is a crime fiction novel set in Tokyo. It opens on a repudiation scene between Ayane and her husband Yoshitaka. They’ve been married for a year and since Avaye isn’t pregnant yet, Yoshitaka is leaving her. He had told her beforehand that he would leave her if a baby wasn’t on its way during the first year of their marriage. I guess it’s a new way to envision the proverbial biological clock. Now he’s found someone else, and that someone else is already pregnant. The chapter ends with Ayane thinking “I love you very deeply. What you just told me broke my heart. Now I want you to die too.”
This happens just before they expect guests for diner. Classy guy, this Yoshitaka. They invited the Mashibas and Hiromi Wakayama, Ayane’s employee. This diner is a subtle form of torture for Ayane since the Mashibas recently had a baby.
The morning after diner, Ayane leaves Tokyo for a few days to visit her family in Sapporo. This trip wasn’t scheduled but it’s understandable given the circumstances. Yoshitaka stays behind, sees his mistress and she’ll be the one to find him dead in his apartment. He was poisoned by arsenic-laced coffee.
The police arrive on the scene and the inspector Kusanagi is in charge of the investigation. He’s drawn to Ayane and in the eye of his young colleague Kaoru Utsumi, he’s too quick to write her off from the list of suspects. She thinks he’s blinded by his attraction to Ayane. To keep the investigation on track, she seeks the help of a scientist, Yukawa. He has already helped the police before and he’s friend with Kusagani. Kaoru wants to figure out how the arsenic arrived in Yoshitaka’s coffee and if Ayane could have poisoned her husband at distance.
That’s all I’ll say about the plot. Salvation of a Saint is well-crafted. I wanted to know if and how Ayane had killed her husband. The police dig into Yoshitaka’s life and past relationships attempting to get to know the victim. The picture is not pretty. He looks down on women. They’re either a means to sexual fun or a living oven for baking his future babies. It’s hard to feel sorry for the guy’s death, especially when you’re a woman. In this book, Higashino doesn’t give a good image of the Japanese society when it comes to women. Here they are wombs or obedient wives. Kaoru has a hard time working with Kusanagi who tends to dismiss her suggestions and analysis. It’s hard to be female in this police department.
The plot has several twists and turns and the relationships between the characters are muddy sometimes. Yoshitaka is certainly not a saint but Ayane seemed quite creepy to me as well. Her reactions to events are off. She never reacts the way the reader expects and she appears to be cold. She’s not really likeable either. I also rejoiced in Yukawa’s participation to the investigation. It brought fresh air and a bit of craziness in the novel. The dynamics in the investigation team was interesting to follow just as it was fun to read about his scientific experiments to find out if and how Ayane could have scheduled the poisoning.
Salvation of a Saint is a classic crime fiction novel with strong plot and intriguing characters. I liked it a lot and had a great time reading it. The English title must reflect the original since I’ve seen the same one in other languages. I can understand why the French title is different: Le salut d’un saint isn’t a good title from a marketing point of view. It’s confusing since salut means hello and salvation. And I suspect that such a title with religious connotation would be a put off for French readers except if it’s on a book by a pulp fiction writer or by San Antonio.
Great reading time.
My son (almost 11) is currently on a Writing Challenge at school. The teacher gives the children the starting point of a story and they have to write a story consistent with it and as fast as they can. They have to write ten pieces. I knew about Reading Challenges (The pupils have to read books and answer questions about the story) but not about Writing Challenges to develop writing skills. I tell you this, literature classes weren’t that funny when I was in primary school. It sure beats the usual Please tell what you did during the holidays. He’s been so proud of his ten stories that I decided to give him a little of internet fame by publishing his favourite one on Book Around The Corner.
The idea was Pierre wonders if he’s not crazy. He just put his apple down for a moment to redo his shoe lace and when he’s finished, he only has an apple core. What happened?
Here’s my son’s follow up:
La journée est ensoleillée. J’en profite pour faire un tour au parc. Je me prévois, après avoir demandé à ma maman si je pouvais y aller, une pomme, au cas où j’ai faim. Je mets mes chaussures et j’y vais. En avant le plaisir ! Ah, enfin le voilà ! Le parc ! Je cours vers lui. Que j’aime cette sensation d’air frais. Ou plutôt chaud, c’est l’été tout de même ! J’entre enfin dans cet espace vert. Je fais un tour puis je m’assois sur un banc. Je sors mon fruit de mon sac, le prends et croque dedans plusieurs fois plus je finis par continuer mon tour en mangeant mon goûter. Soudain je m’arrête, mon lacet est défait ; Je pose mon sac par terre, puis ma pomme (sur mon sac, un peu de propreté, quand même) et je fais mon lacet. Mais au moment de me relever, je vois qu’elle n’est plus là, enfin, pour ce qu’il en reste, pour moi, elle n’est plus là. Je regarde autour de moi pour trouver qui aurait pu commettre un délit de la sorte ! A part deux enfants de cinq ans surveillés par leur mère, personne. Bizarre, mon champ de vision est vide. Je cherche des indices, des traces du voleur mais en vain. Je n’ai plus de pomme et rien à faire. Je rentre chez moi. Mais en arrivant, je découvre le coupable. Oooh, il m’a suivi ! Pris en filature ! Je n’en reviens pas quand je vois mon chien avec des morceaux de pomme entre les dents.
Now the English translation.
It is a sunny day. I want to go to the park. After asking my mom if I could go, I take an apple with me in case I get hungry. I put on my shoes and here I go. To pleasure! Ah, here’s it is! The park! I run towards. How I love this feeling of fresh air! Or hot air, it’s summer, after all. I eventually enter this green space. I walk around and sit on a bench. I pull my fruit out of my bag and bite into it several times and I start walking again while eating my snack. I stop suddenly, my shoe lace is undone. I put my bag on the floor and then my apple (on my bag, a bit of hygiene, after all) et I redo my shoe lace. When I stand up, I see that my apple is missing or for what is left of it, it’s as if it were missing. I look around to find out who could have committed such a felony! Apart from two five-year olds watched by their mother, nobody. Strange, my field of vision is empty. I look for clues, traces of the thief but to no avail. I have no apple and nothing to do. I go home. But when I get there, I discover the culprit. Ooh, he followed me! Tailed me! I can’t believe it when I see my dog with apple bits between his teeth.
‘That’s all, folks!’ , says the proud mother.
Please note that he managed to put in a sentence so French I can’t translate it well into English: “En avant le plaisir!”
PS: the picture is the cover of his literary notebook.
Comment vous racontez la partie (written and directed) by Yasmina Reza. Not available in English. (yet)
It’s been a while since my last billet about theatre. I’ve seen a play version of Novecento by Alessandro Barrico with André Dussolier and it was marvelous. I’m still not convinced that Barrico is such an extraordinary writer as critics let us think but Dussolier on stage is a delight. The play holds together more by the obvious pleasure Dussolier experiences on stage than by the depth of the text. The fact that he was acompagnied by a jazz pianist didn’t hurt either. I’ve also seen Les aiguilles et l’opium (Needles and Opium) by Robert Lepage, a play that features a brokenhearted man from Quebec, staying in Paris to record a radio show about Miles Davis’s time in the City of Lights in 1949. It also displays Cocteau’s impressions about New York at the same time. I’ve rarely seen such a creative and poetic stage direction. Everything was perfect from the music, the lights, the decors bringing us from Paris in 1949 to Paris in 1989. If you ever have a chance to see these plays, go for it.
That brings me to the last one I’ve seen, Comment vous racontez la partie by Yasmina Reza. (How You Tell the Story.) I want to write about this one because it deals with literature, readers, journalists and authors.
Nathalie Oppenheim is a famous writer who won the Germaine Beaumont prize. Her last novel, Le pays des lassitudes (The country of wearinesses) has just been released. She accepted an invitation to participate to the literary Saturdays of the small provincial town of Vilan-en-Volène. She is welcomed by Roland, the manager of the médiathèque (multimedia library) and the meeting will take place at the community centre. Nathalie will be interviewed by Rosanna Ertel-Keval, a famous literary journalist who grew up in Vilan-en-Volène. As always in such circumstances, the mayor of the town attends the meeting and the inevitable subsequent cocktail party.
This is a funny and serious play because the characters are subtly drawn. Nathalie is comparable to many writers you see in salons, signing books and loathing it. Not that they don’t want to meet their public or that they don’t respect them. It’s just that it’s out of their comfort zone. Rosanna is the perfect polished Parisian literary journalist. The actress, Christèle Tual, played the smooth interviewer at perfection. She tries to ask deep and articulate questions while casually name-dropping to remind Nathalie that she’s friendly with major great authors. She speaks with that unctuous tone that literary journalists use on France Inter when they talk with writers. Roland is the perfect literary nerd you meet in mediathèques everywhere. He’s extremely literate, totally overwhelmed with meeting a dream writer and also well anchored in the community, creating bridges between books and people in his town.
Everything in the setting and in the characters rings true. The name of the small town sounds like a country town in Normandy. Germaine Beaumont was a writer and member of the jury of the Prix Femina. Nathalie’s book The country of wearinesses, sounds like a French contemporary novel. (Right in the never-forget-you’re-going-to-die category). Roland and the major look like and sound like characters you meet in small towns. The major is so proud of his community centre; he fought for it for three years to get it financed. Yasmina Reza could make fun of provincial life. She does – we laugh a lot, thanks to the text and an amazing direction – but we laugh with benevolence. In a sense, it is also a tribute to all the Rolands in France who do ground work to bring literature to people.
The serious part of the play is about the relationship of a writer with their books. Nathalie is not comfortable with reading out loud passages of her novel or discussing it. The more Rosanna tries to pull out commentaries about such or such paragraph, the more she dodges the questions and tries to derail her and talk about something else. Nathalie’s idea is that her book should stand by itself, that even if she put something of herself in it, the public shouldn’t imagine that she’s the character of the book. She doesn’t want to overanalyze her work. She’s caught between the need to promote her novel and her deep belief that she shouldn’t be discussing her book. She doesn’t want to desiccate her feelings or what she meant by this or that sentence. She refuses to compare the men of her novel to the men of her life, to assume that her character’s vision of men is hers.
Nathalie doesn’t want to overshadow her work. She’s private, she doesn’t want that her interview about her novel becomes a public shrink session about her issues under the (false) pretense of analyzing the hidden meaning of her work. Rosanna finishes her interview with a reference to Philip Roth. For me it’s not a coincidence. Exit Ghost deals with that question: what becomes of a literary work when its author is not there anymore to rectify wrong interpretations or to correct inaccurate biographies? What happens if the writer’s life appears more interesting than his work? What happens to a literary work if a scandal hits its author’s life?
Rosanna is only doing her job, in appearance. The problem lays in the particularity of being a literary journalist. The material you’re interviewing people about is not their political program for their next campaign or their strategy to develop their company or simply talking about their field of expertise. Literary journalists interview authors about works that come from their imagination. It’s their brain’s child. This is why some of Rosanna’s questions are nosy even if she doesn’t mean to pry. I felt sorry for the poor Nathalie squirming on her chair, trying to pick non-committal answers while not giving away too much. Otherwise, it fuels Rosanna’s questioning as she’s like a dog with a bone once she’s onto something.
The actors were on chairs on the stage, facing us, as if we were the public of Vilan-en-Volène. We were watching the play and participating to the show as the extras playing the attendance. We are also participating in this masquerade, in general, by reading interviews of authors and listening or watching literary shows. What’s our responsibility in this circus?
It’s a brilliant play that helps us readers live for a while in a writer’s shoes. It combines fun and serious and that’s for me the seal of a fantastic playwright.