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Slaves by Kangni Alem – Disappointing.

November 24, 2019 2 comments

Slaves by Kangni Alem Original French title: Esclaves Not available in English.

Slaves is a historical novel by the Togolese writer Kangni Alem. It relates the story of the slave trade in the 19th century on the Slave Coast of West Africa. After a quick foreword, the book starts in 1818 when the king of Dahomey Adandozan is deposed and his rival becomes the King Guézo (1818-1858). Adandozan was trying to oppose to the slave trade. Guézo has an alliance with the Portuguese governor Francisco Felix de Souza and their only aim is to get rich. They sell slaves to Brazilian landowners to have free workers on their plantations.

The master of rituals Sakpatê unwillingly participates to Adandozan’s dismissal. He is seen as unreliable and his wives and children are sent to plantations in Cuba.

He is sent to Recife in Brazil where he is renamed Miguel. There, he becomes a Muslim under the patronage of another slave and chooses the name Sule. He learns how to read and write.

After a slave upheaval in the plantation, he is sold to another master in Salvador de Bahia. He becomes a respected house slave but he keeps a distant relationship with a man who intends to lead a slave rebellion and take the power in Bahia. The plot is revealed and the repression is bloody. Sule is sent back to Africa and he chooses to go back to the city where Adandozan is said to be buried.

Kangni Alem writes this novel with a purpose: he wants to confront the hypocrisy of the Europeans who benefited from the slave trade and of the African powers of the time who got rich by selling their people or war prisoners. Neither of them can reject the responsibility of slavery to the other’s face. They are accomplices and they knew what they were doing.

I enjoyed the historical side of the book. It is something I was vaguely aware of but I never took time to dig further. I wasn’t so engaged with the Sakpatê/Miguel/Sule, though, probably because the structure of the book felt stuffy and artificial.

The prologue was set in 1841 and it was about a ship leaving England to Sydney, a vessel that was used to transport slaves to Brazil. It is said to be cursed and indeed, it is mysteriously shipwrecked in the Sydney Bay. The rest of the story is split in small chapters with titles similar to the ones you may find in 19th century literature. It fit with the times of the novel but it felt artificial.

The prologue made me suspicious about the book because I suspected anachronisms. One character alludes to the Loch Ness monster, something that became popular in the 1930s. Another mentions Texas as being part of the USA but in 1841, Texas was a Republic. A character hates Lincoln for his abolitionist views. I’m not a specialist of US history but I’m not sure that Lincoln was a famous abolitionist in 1841.

And then there were typos – irritating but it can happen – and grammar mistakes—unforgivable—the worst one being ‘Il surviva’, which is as bad as writing ‘He stealed’ instead of ‘he stole’.

All this went in the way of my reading and while the substance of the book was interesting and pushed me to read a bit about the Kingdom of Dahomey, the form got in the way of its message. Or it belongs to another literary culture and I read it with my biased Western eyes and I’m totally unfair to this novel because I missed the point.

Five Bells by Gail Jones – four characters and Sydney.

November 17, 2019 15 comments

Five Bells by Gail Jones (2011) French title: Cinq carillons.

Five Bells by Gail Jones my third book for Brona’s Australia Reading Month.

Sydney, Circular Quay. James, Ellie, Pei Xing and Catherine converge to Sidney’s harbour for the day. Five Bells is evocative of Sydney, the beauty of the bay, its cafés and its crowds, people coming there to take the various ferries to go across the bay. Each character gives us their impression of the Sydney Opera and the bridge, the most striking features of the area, besides the pure beauty of the landscape.

Slowly, going from one character to the other, they unfold their past for us to see.

Then she [Pei Xing] saw herself from the inside: those layers of self slowly, gently, time-travelling across the water, the child receiving a white thin-lipped teacup from the hands of her mother, the student in plaits taught to sit still with her hands in her lap, the lover opening arched spaces to the engulfment of a man’s body, the mother bent, cloudy with joy, over her infant son’s head. In the wilderness of leaving Shanghai, these selves had blended and folded; now, in meditation, she was able to fan them apart. This was her habit, these days, to see herself in this way, the concertina of a life in which she saw her own folds and crevices. I have lived many lives. There was something reassuring in this, not to be single but many, not to be of one language but several, not to have but one discrete past but a skein, and multiple.

Pei Xing and James were the most striking characters for me. Pei Xing is the oldest of the four and she’s at Circular Quay to take the ferry to her weekly visit to a nursing home on the other side of the bay. She had a hard life, growing up in China during the Cultural Revolution. She left to build a new life in Australia but she’s still haunted by her Chinese past and we gradually discover the scars left by the political events she survived. Pei Xing has the most terrible past of the four but she’s come to peace with it.

James and Ellie used to be neighbours when they were young. They were teenage lovers and they meet again for the first time in years. James comes from Italian emigrants, Matheus and Giovanna and her mother ended up raising him alone.

In this country in which men need not talk at all, except of workday details over a beer or two, Matheus gradually grew silent and then he was gone. Giovanna had seen him retreating for years, becoming thin and stretched as a Giacometti sculpture. One day he stretched into nothingness and slipped over the horizon.

James grew up with an anxious mother who wasn’t nurturing enough. She wasn’t a safe haven and he grew up without a secure emotional anchor. Ellie played that role when they were children and then teenagers. And now he’s in need of emotional comfort and he reached out to her. He’s desperate and looking for help but it’s not certain he’ll manage to ask for it.

Ellie lives in Sydney now and she’s happy and at the same time worried to see James again. He had disappeared from her life. Abruptly. And she never fully recovered from that abandonment, especially as it also came after her father’s death.

Catherine is an Irish journalist. She left Dublin to work in London after her role model, the journalist Veronica Guerin, was killed. Now she’s on the move again, from London to Sydney . She wants a fresh start because she cannot recover from her brother Brendan’s death. They were thick as thieves and losing him left a wound that won’t heal.

Gail Jones builds Ariadne threads between the characters. They have things in common, Sydney as a new beginning, traumatic deaths in their past, something around snow and Russian literature.

All the characters are in Sydney after leaving their old life behind. The city is a chance for them to start again and yet, they carry their past with them. All grew up without a full set of parents, their fathers died young. Due to the circumstances, they all lacked strong emotional roots that one builds in childhood or if they had some, they were cut-off too early. Ellie felt that James had abandoned her. Brendan’s death is untimely. Pei Xing lost her parents in the Cultural Revolution. James was not ready to lose his mother when she died.

Five Bells is contemplative and yet the story moves forward as the day progresses. I can’t reveal too much without giving out important details for future readers. The book’s construction is thorough and things fall into place neatly but not too neatly. I was drawn to the characters thanks to Gail Jones’s prose. I was in tune with her tone, the musicality of the sentences, like the gentle rock of a boat. I enjoyed her description of Sydney’s harbour and through these stories, she gives a picture of multicultural Australia. This is a country that welcomes strangers who want to start a new life. Living one’s country behind is never an easy decision to make and, in a way, Jones makes us think about all the ghosts that immigrants carry with them.

I discussed Gail Jones with Lisa when I was reading Five Bells and she told me that this author never worked for her due to heavy symbolism spread in her books. I didn’t notice anything is Five Bells but it doesn’t mean there isn’t any. Perhaps I missed it because I read it in English and it went over my head. Perhaps I’m not the kind of reader who notices things like this. I’m an easy public once I’m on board and Gail Jones embarked me within a few pages. So, who knows, it might bother other readers too.

PS: I wish I had time to write a billet about French characters in foreign books. Foreign authors keep puzzling me that way. Here we have a guy named Luc who comes from Besançon. How did Jones even think of this town? Because it’s where Victor Hugo was born? Luc lives in London and is a translator of Russian to French. I know that there are more French people in London than in Lyon (before Brexit, that is) but I wonder why she chose a French companion for Catherine.

PPS: I also wish I had time to write a billet about typos on French words and expressions in books written in English because there are too many of them. And with all the resources available on the internet, it would be nice not to see them anymore.

Berlin Alexanderplatz Readalong : Sorry, but I quit

November 16, 2019 45 comments

Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin (1929) French title: Berlin ALexanderplatz. Translated by Olivier Le Lay

This is my second attempt at reading Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin. Lizzy and Caroline host it this year for German Lit Month and I thought I’d try again. I stretched my fingers to hold the chunkster, put the sticky notes in the book to mark the weeks of the readalong and started to spend time with Franz Biberkopf, the hero of this 613 pages long novel. (At least in French and in my Folio edition. Don’t forget that, due to the language, books are about 10% longer in French than in English)

Despite my motivation, I abandoned Berlin Alexanderplatz again. I don’t care to know what’s going to happen to Franz Biberkopf. I was reading and pages were gliding over my brain like water on trout’s skin. (Yeah, no more fly-fishing reads for me, I have scars) In other words, I was reading and not imprinting anything.

I tried to force myself and after a few painful reading sessions, I started to wonder why I was inflicting this to myself. For the bragging rights? To tick a box on the 1001-books-you-must-read-before-you-die list? (I’m closeted 1001-books lister) I had to stop and remind myself that nobody cares whether I finish it or not, that reading is my hobby, not my duty. And reading must remain a pleasure, and nothing else. Goodbye to Berlin!

So, I hope that the other participants to the readalong have a great time with Döblin. My thoughts haven’t changed in five years and what I wrote in my previous billet is still valid.

Tschüβ!

Sex, Death and Fly-fishing by John Gierach – Boring and endearing

November 10, 2019 6 comments

Sex, Death and Fly-fishing by John Gierach. (1990) French title: Sexe, mort et pêche à la mouche. Translated by Jacques Mailhos

When I bought Sex, Death and Fly-fishing by John Gierach, I expected something of Jim Harrison’s short-stories mated with Tapply’s passion for fly-fishing. I didn’t expect eighteen detailed non-fiction stories about fly-fishing.

I learned more about fly-fishing than I’ll ever care to know. I got a 360-degre view on fly-fishing. Let’s see:

Bugs: their life’s stages, their hatching and the trout gobbling them. Fishing is all about being at the right place at the right time (On the rare overcast, drizzly afternoons, the Red Quill dun can hatch late, and the spinner fall can come early, giving you hours of good fishing with a transition point when both forms of the bug are on the water at once.). I had to google Red Quill, dun, spinner…

Equipment: best bellyboats, waders, poles, hats, sticks, hoop nets…I had to google bellyboats because, for the life of me, I couldn’t decipher what it was, even reading the book in French.

Flies: Their size, their color, their making, the materials to use. How midge fishing became trendy in the fly-fishing world. How John Gierach decided to built a henhouse and raise hens to have his home-made feathers to make flies.

Fish: bluegrass, cutthroat, black bass, rainbow trout. I discovered the hierarchy between the fish, as not all are worth the same for the fisherman. Apparently, trout is royalty compared to peasant black bass. I had to google them, of course. Somehow it registered in my memory bank because I playfully wondered what trout I was cooking the other day and decided that it was definitely rainbow trout.

Rivers: Lots of descriptions of landscapes and rivers in Colorado, Wyoming, Montana and British Columbia. That was nice and brought the escapism I needed. I particularly enjoyed the story I’d Fish in Anyone’s St Vrain. Gierach explains how every fisherman has his favorite river, close to their home, a lesser-known river that they know in and out. Being invited to fish in someone’s favorite river is a treat.

Weather: What’s the best weather for fly-fishing. Since it’s overcast or rainy, I’m not sure I’m made for that sport. When to fish, how to fish in cold weather…

That was the boring side of Sex, Death and Fly-fishing. The endearing side was Gierach’s light and funny tone. He’s full of humor probably because he knows how geeky he sounds. He also inserts thoughts about environmental concerns and life as a fisherman/writer. I enjoyed his non-judgmental tone. Even if he’s passionate about fishing, he remains open-minded. He doesn’t think that his ways are the best, doesn’t make fun or get angry at philistines. He’s happy that it’s a catch-and-release sport, he enjoys the wilderness, the peaceful comradeship with his fishing buddies.

The other endearing side was his geeky side. He’s passionate and enthusiastic. He’s all about the details of the sport, he gets excited about getting the right material for making a perfect fly for future fishing trips. He researches entomology to better understand the bugs that make trout swim to the surface of water to gorge themselves on the said bugs. I was reading and thinking that I didn’t give a damn about the right feather, animal hair or whatnot to make THE fly that will attract trout but I found his devotion to his passion amusing and worth reading about. I could feel him grinning and glowing of happiness while writing about fishing.

And then I thought, “Are we, book lovers, any different from him”? How do we sound to non-readers when we gush about Gallmeister books or collect Penguin classics? How weird must we sound when we have heated discussions about translations and ask around which translation is best for In Search of Lost Time? Shall we read the Scott Moncrieff or a more recent one? How did I sound to my colleague the other day when I joined a meeting where coffee and pastries were served and I told him off-handedly while picking a madeleine, “I’m eating a madeleine because it’s the centennial of Proust’s Prix Goncourt?” In a team building meeting, we were asked to describe ourselves with a word. I said “literary nerd”, which is a total opposite to my actual position in the company and but it’s the first thing that popped to my mind.

And that’s what I enjoyed most about Sex, Death and Fly-fishing: I loved the pure joy that seeped from Gierach’s words as he wrote stories about his lifelong passion, even if some descriptions of flies, bellyboats and fishnets made me yawn. I bet he could describe himself as a fishing nerd too.

And folks, this is why Sex, Death and Fly-fishing is boring and endearing.

PS: Outstanding translation by Jacques Mailhos. As usual.

The Essence of the Thing by Madeleine St John – the waste of a relationship

November 3, 2019 14 comments

The Essence of the Thing by Madeleine St John (1997) Not available in French. (Translation Tragedy)

The Essence of the Thing by Madeleine St John is set in London, even if its author is Australian. I wonder why this novel needed to be in London, Sydney or Melbourne would have done the trick too. Well.

One night, when Nicola comes home after going out to buy a pack of cigarettes, her partner Jonathan tells her to come and sit down. The ominous “We need to talk” arrives and he coldly informs her that he wants her to leave their flat.

He considers that their relationship has run its course, he doesn’t want to live with her anymore, and since she can’t afford to buy him out, he will. He calmly explains that everything is settled, he’ll be gone for the weekend, implying she should be gone when he comes back. Meanwhile, he’ll stay in the spare room. Come Monday morning, a real estate agent will evaluate the flat’s worth.

Nicola is stunned, she never saw that one coming, she thought they were in a happy relationship. At first, she listens to him, flabbergasted. She thinks he doesn’t mean it. And she slowly realizes that yes, he’s serious and that she’ll have to leave her home.

We see Nicola stumble, trying to pick up the pieces of her life. She’s obliged to move on. Her friend Susannah is outraged for her and tells her she can move in with her family as long as she needs it. The dialogues between Nicola and her friends, between Susannah and her husband Geoffrey introduce a bit of lightness in the sadness. We witness the end of a relationship, the crushing pain inflicted on Nicola by a cold Jonathan.

Soon, Nicola finds her backbone and demands answers. She wants to know what happened, since when he felt that way and she feels utterly betrayed that he never mentioned anything before he reached the point of making such a rash and final decision.

Nicola loves him deeply and he says he doesn’t love her anymore. She wonders what she did wrong and her self-worth crumbles quickly. Her heart is broken but so is her self-esteem. She feels unworthy and questions her judgment: how could she be so blind and misread him that much?

We see her holding on to her job, taking care of the painful details of separating her life from Jonathan’s and living through her heartache. Jonathan’s rash actions planted darts in her self at several points at the same time: her heart, her pride and her self-esteem.

Nicola lay under the bedclothes, hunched around her pain, despising herself.

She despised herself for her failure to oppose Jonathan’s frozen blankness with the tears and shrieks which would have expressed her true feelings. She despised herself for the mean little sarcasms which had been her only mode of attack—she despised herself even though these slights had found their petty targets, because the wounded pride to which they gave expression was—or ought to be—the least of her complaints. She believed that the wound Jonathan had dealt to her heart (her truly loving, trusting, faithful heart) was a more serious and honourable wound than that to her self-esteem. She supposed these two could be differentiated, and so long as they could, she had shown him nothing of the real pain she was suffering. In the face of his cast-iron indifference she was apparently as dumb and cold as he. She despised herself for this dumb coldness. She had never before so plainly been shown the difficulty, the near-impossibility, of speaking truly to an interlocutor who will not hear, but she knew one must attempt it nevertheless, and thus far she had failed even to make the attempt. She swore she would make it on the morrow, and at last, wretched, now, beyond tears, she slept.

But we also see Jonathan’s side and discover a man who made a decision thinking he was doing the right thing. But why doesn’t he feel more relieved or happier?

Madeleine St John vividly describes the end of a love affair. I felt Nicola’s pain and heard with horror all the hurtful words that Jonathan threw at her with perfect calm. As you can see in the previous quote, St John conveys Nicola’s sorrow and you cannot help but empathise with her.

As the story unfolds, we understand that Jonathan is clueless, unable to express his feelings properly, even to himself and whatever they are. At first, like Susannah, I thought he was a perfect rat and then I felt sorry for him.

Apart from watching the train wreck of Nicola and Jonathan’s relationship, I had fun with all the French words peppered in the text. Lots of French words. Without any footnote or translation. How do you deal with that? And, as usual, the only French character has an improbable name considering he’s young and we’re in 1997. After a young Jean-Paul in a book by Max Barry and a young Michel in Zadie Smith, now a young Jean-Claude. Writers, these are typical baby-boomers’ names.

Apart from this slight mishap only visible to a French reader, The Essence of Thing is book like the marmalade that Jonathan’s mother makes. It’s a good balance between the sassy conversations of the minor characters who rally around Nicola and the bitterness of the end of Nicola and Jonathan’s couple.

Highly recommended.

You can read Lisa’s review here.

This was my second book by Madeleine St John. The first one was The Women In Black and my billet is here.

It is also a contribution to Brona’s Australia Reading Month.

AusReadingMonth: Lexicon by Max Barry – “Words are weapons sharper than knives”

November 1, 2019 17 comments

Lexicon by Max Barry (2013) Not available in French.

Wil Parke is brutally kidnapped at Chicago airport. A mysterious team takes him to the lavatories and try to make him confess his true identity. He doesn’t know what this is all about. He’s a carpenter and his girlfriend is waiting for him at the arrivals. That’s all he knows. Things get violent quite fast and a man named Tom explains that their pursuants are “poets”, members of an organisation where leaders take the name of famous dead poets.

A mass killing happened a year before in Broken Hill, Australia. The whole population of the town was killed. Officially, it’s due to industrial leakage but the organisation knows that their agent Virginia Woolf went there with a weapon of mass destruction. She escaped and Wil is the only other survivor. He seems to be immune to the weapon. Problem 1: The weapon is still in Broken Hill and nobody can approach it without dying. Problem 2: Virginia Woolf is on the loose and she’s very dangerous. Poor Wil finds himself in the crossfire of two different factions among the poets and has to fight for his life.

Lexicon alternates chapters between the ongoing man hunt and Virginia Woolf’s story. Her name was Emily Duff. She was a sixteen-year old girl playing tricks on the streets in San Francisco when she was recruited to attend a special school near Washington DC. The school head is a poet, Charlotte Brontë. Her teachers are Lowell and Eliot. At the school, students learn the art of manipulating people’s minds. This is Emily’s epiphany:

But the truth was, she had just figured it out. Attention words. A single word wasn’t enough. Not even for a particular segment. The brain had defences, filters evolved over millions of years to protect against manipulation. The first was perception, the process of funnelling an ocean of sensory input down to a few key data packages worthy of study by the cerebral cortex. When data got by the perception filter, it received attention. And she saw new that it must be like that all the way down: There must be words to attack each filter. Attention words and then maybe desire words and logic words and urgency words and command words. This was what they were teaching her. How to craft a string of words that would disable the filters one by one, unlocking each mental tumbler until the mind’s last door swung open.

The poets master the art of “compromising” people, meaning that they take control over their minds and make them do what they want. Students learn languages, psychology and neuroscience. People are put into narrow segments, each segment reacts to certain words that make their mental walls collapse, enabling the poet to take over their mind. This is what it feels like:

Vartix velkor mannik wissick. Be still.”

Her mouth snapped closed. It happened before she realised what she was doing. The surprise was thet it felt like her decision. She really, genuinely wanted to be still. It was the words. Yeats, compromising her, she knew, but it didn’t feel like that at all. Her brain was spinning with rationalisations, reasons why she should definitely be still right new, why that was a really good move, and it was talking in her voice. She hadn’t known compromise was like this.

Frightening power, isn’t it?

What happened to Emily? Are Wil and Eliot right to be afraid of Virginia Woolf? Or should they be more concerned about Yeats, the director of the organisation? The two branches of the story converge in the end, giving the reader a whole picture of what happened. It is hard to give more details about the plot without giving away too much. This blog is spoiler free, so…

In Lexicon, Max Barry explores the power of language and how people can be manipulated. He imagines that the most lethal weapon is a word, a word so powerful that people die around it. The leaders of the organisation are poets because they are good with words. At their school, students have to learn to control their mind. They know they could be “compromised” and they know how to do it to others. They are taught to mask their feelings. Desires are unwanted, even basic ones like the desire to love and be loved. Desires are weaknesses and poets must keep their thoughts under a tight leash.

Emily is somehow resistant to it. She grew up cheating to survive and this instinct stays strong in her. Eliot never managed to tame his natural tendency to empathy. In the eyes of perfectly controlled Yeats, Eliot is weak. These two have one thing in common: they bend the rules because they don’t have the same ironclad control that the others have.

Lexicon plays with the idea of dominating people by feeding them words so well chosen that they target specific responses. Poets do what ill-intention press does, what social network can do, as the Cambridge Analytica scandal showed us. The master idea behind the organisation is that if you manage to attach someone to his adequate psychological segment, you’ll know how to get to him.

Now I have a question for English literature specialists. I’m not a good reader of poetry, not even in French, so I don’t know well Anglophone poetry either. Of course, I know about Yeats, Charlotte Brontë, Virginia Woolf, TS Eliot and other poets mentioned in the book. What I don’t know is what their names trigger in a British or American mind. Is it normal that the dissident poet is TS Eliot? Does it mean something that the cold, unfeeling and repressed leader is named Yeats? For example, when Yeats-the character says this…

“When I experience base physiological needs for food, water, air, sleep, and sex, I follow protocols in order to satisfy them without experiencing desire. Yes, it’s funny.”

“You fucking what?”

“It’s required to maintain a defence against compromise. Desire is weakness. I’m sure I explained this.”

…does it make any sense compared to Yeats-the-real-poet? I’d be grateful for a little bit of insight. I’m afraid I missed some subtext.

Lexicon is the kind of dystopian fiction you want to have on a long plane journey. It’s a page-turner, it’s entertaining and it makes you think.

This is my fifth Max Barry after Company, about the absurdity of corporate life and management methods (anyone in HR should read it), Syrup, about marketing and the launch of a new soda on the market, Jennifer Government, about consumerism, Machine Man, about transhumanism. All books are dystopian fiction and work around an angle of our contemporary societies. My favourite ones are Company and Jennifer Government. A new novel, Providence is expected in March 2020.

For another review of Lexicon, read Guy’s here. Thanks again, Guy, for introducing me to Max Barry. I also read it as my participation to Brona’s AusReadingChallenge. It’ll last the whole month of November.

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