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Half Life by Roopa Farooki – A lovely journey back to full life.

December 16, 2018 6 comments

Half Life by Roopa Farooki (2010) French title: Le Temps des vrais bonheurs. Translated by Jérémy Oriol.

It’s time to stop fighting, and go home. Those were the words which finally persuaded Aruna to walk out of her ground-floor Victorian flat in Bethnal Green, and keep on walking. One step at a time, one foot, and then the other, her inappropriately flimsy sandals flip-flopping on the damp east London streets; she avoids the dank, brown puddles, the foil glint of the takeaway containers glistening with the vibrant slime of sweet and sour sauce, the mottled banana skin left on the pavement like a practical joke, but otherwise walks in straight line. One foot, and then the other. Toe to heel to toe to heel. Flip-flop. She knows exactly where she is going, and even though she could have carried everything she needs in her dressing-gown pocket – her credit card, her passport, her phone – she has taken her handbag instead, and she has paused in her escape long enough to dress in jeans, a T-shirt and even a jacket. Just for show. So that people won’t think that she is a madwoman who has walked out on her marriage and her marital home in the middle of breakfast, with her half-eaten porridge congealing in the bowl, with her tea cooling on the counter top. So that she won’t think so either. So she can turn up at the airport looking like anyone else, hand over her credit card, and run back to the city she had run away from in the first place.

The opening paragraph of Half Life by Roopa Farooki has in itself most of the key elements of her novel. This is Aruna’s point of view.

It’s time to stop fighting, and go home is a verse of a poem by a minor Bengali poet, Hari Hassan. Hassan is dying in a hospital in Kuala Lumpur and reflects on his life. His last wish is to see his estranged son one last time. Hassan looks back on his love life, on past friendships and on the war that resulted in the creation of Bangladesh in 1971. He and his best friend weren’t on the same side. He will be the second voice of Half Life.

Aruna read this verse in a collection of poems by Hassan that her childhood friend turned lover gave her. Jazz, that’s his name, lives in Singapore and will be the third voice of Half Life.

Aruna has been in London for two years after she fled from Singapore, leaving Jazz behind, never looking back, never contacting him again. She got married to Patrick, a doctor who works in a local hospital. She’s bipolar and struggles with her illness. Her tone is rather detached, as if she goes with the flow of her life without being truly engaged in it. Her description of her relationship with Patrick is quite harsh and I pitied him a bit. But is Aruna a reliable character? Is Patrick as oblivious as she thinks?

Jazz has stayed in Singapore, has a new girlfriend and tries to move on from Aruna. He doesn’t speak to his father Hari Hassan anymore and doesn’t know he’s dying in Kuala Lumpur. Aruna’s departure was brutal after they discovered a disturbing fact about Jazz and her. They grew up together, their parents living in the same neighborhood, two Bengali kids in school, looking alike and linked by a strong bond. Their relationship moved from deep friendship to lovers. Until a family secret shattered their love bubble.

And then Aruna left. Abruptly. Just like she does this very morning in London, leaving her husband, their flat and their life behind in the middle of breakfast. It’s time to go back to Singapore, see Jazz again and look for the answers behind the secret they discovered. It’s time to stop hiding, to learn the truth to finally heal.

The good part of writing billets about books I read a few months ago is to assess what stayed with me. If I don’t read my notes or reread passages of Half Life by Roopa Farooki, I’m left with a bittersweet impression of a main character, Aruna who goes on a few days journey to put together the puzzle of her identity and her life. It will take her three days and three nights.

I didn’t like her very much at the beginning, I thought she was cruel to others and quite selfish. But maybe she felt so bad that all her strength was used to keep living her everyday life, work, interact with Patrick, his family and friends. Perhaps it consumed all her energy and left nothing to reach out to other human beings around her. Nothing left to give. Selfishness in survival mode.

Jazz and Hassan need closure. Jazz does to move on, to have Aruna in his life as a friend and not as a partner. Hassan wants to die in peace and reconcile with his son and his best friend.

Half Life is what these three characters have been living. Hassan has forever been cut in half after the civil war that brought the creation of Bangladesh. His former life was in Pakistan. His heart was in Bangladesh. Aruna and Jazz cannot live a full life without a new foundation to their relationship. They have to move back to friendship because they need each other. Without this, they only engage half way in their life and current relationships. It’s time Aruna gives more credit to her feelings for Patrick. (In a way, she reminds me of Marguerite Duras in The Lover.) It’s time that Jazz invests in his relationship to June. Their partners deserve it. Half life also refers to geography. For the three characters, half of their life is in another country.

I enjoyed the setting, the descriptions of Singapore and of Aruna and Jazz’s childhoods. It brought me to places I’ve never been to. Farooki’s writing is fluid, with a pleasant melody, one that stays with you and makes you remember fondly of this unusual story and its engaging characters.

PS: According to her biography on Wikipedia, Roopa Farooki has moved from corporate finance and advertising to literature, a brave and radical change of career that she can be proud of.

PPS : I’m sorry but again, I prefer the French cover to the Anglo-Saxon one.

Wake in Fright by Kenneth Cook – What happens in The Yabba must stay in The Yabba

December 12, 2018 7 comments

Wake in Fright by Kenneth Cook (1961) French title: Cinq matins de trop.

Welcome to our next stop on my crime fiction reading journey. We’re with John Grant, a schoolteacher who has been appointed in the remote tiny town of Tiboonda in the Australian outback. He hates it there and he still has another year to serve but now it’s the end of the school year and he’s on his way back to civilisation, which means Sydney to him.

The schoolteacher knew that somewhere not far out in the shimmering haze was the state border, marked by a broken fence, and that further out in the heat was the silent centre of Australia, the Dead Heart. He looked through the windows almost with pleasure, because tonight he would be on his way to Bundanyabba; tomorrow morning he would board an aircraft; and tomorrow night he would be in Sydney, and on Sunday he would swim in the sea. For the schoolteacher was a coastal Australian, a native of the strip of continent lying between the Pacific Ocean and the Great Dividing Range, where Nature deposited the graces she so firmly withheld from the west.

He has to stay in the mining town of Bundanyabba for a night to catch his flight. It’s hot as hell in this place in the summer. After checking in in his hotel room, he decides to have a beer in a pub before going to bed. He starts chatting with a policeman who takes him to the local two-up gambling game. Grant is fascinated by the show, the bets, the atmosphere. He leaves unscathed but is caught by the gambling bug later in the night. He goes back and of course, he loses all his money. He’s now stranded in Bundanyabba, or as the locals call it, The Yabba.

What the loss meant to him was so grievous in import that he could not think about it. His mind had a small tight knot at the back, and around it whirled the destructive realisation of what he had done, but until that knot unravelled, he need not think too deeply about what was to happen now. He went back to the hotel, stripped off his clothes, fell naked on to the bed, and stared, hot-eyed, at the ceiling until suddenly he fell asleep with the light still burning.

The morning after, he wanders in town, enters another pub and befriends with Hynes, the director of the local mine. Hynes takes him home to diner with his wife, adult daughter and friends Dick and Joe. They drink themselves into a stupor and Grant wakes up in a shack which is the home of the local Doc. Grant barely recovers sobriety before drinking again and being dragged into a nightly kangaroo hunt.

How will he get out his predicament?

No wonder Wake in Fright has become a classic. Cook draws the tale of a man who’s in a two-years hiatus from his life as he has to serve his two years in the Australian outback and he loathes it. He’s bored, ill-prepared for the climate and so ready to have a break from it all during the Christmas six weeks holidays.

He’s puzzled by the bush and its people. All the people he meets in The Yabba love it there, something he can’t understand. The heat turns his brain into mush, thirst leads to drinking too much beer and his willpower is quickly eroded and crumbles. The poor, candid and virgin John Grant is taken in a storm of drinking and sex topped up by a hallucinating hunting trip in the wild.

Cook draws a convincing picture of life in the outback. He brings the reader there, especially in the descriptions of the landscape and wild life. Like here when Grant is in a truck on his way to the hunting trip:

Out over the desert plains, behind the roar and grind of the ancient engines, the dreary words and trite tunes of modern America caused the dingoes to cock their ears in wonder, and deepened measurably the sadness that permeates the outback of Australia.

I imagine them all in the truck’s cabin, listening to the only radio available and disturbing the peace of the wildlife with their loud Western attitude. Meanwhile, nature goes on with its natural course and gives us humans a magnificent show.

Eventually the sun relinquished its torturing hold and the plains became brown and purple and gold and then black as the sky was pierced by a million bursts of flickering light from dispassionate worlds unthinkable distances apart.

Wake in Fright has a strong sense of place, The Yabba is almost a character, playing a decisive role in the days Grant will spend in this dreary place. The book is tagged as psychological thriller, probably because Grant falls into the sick hands of the Hynes clique. Moral compasses are not aligned between Sydney and The Yabba. Propriety is not the same and Grant is a stranger with no clue of the code of conduct he should abide by.

Peculiar trait of the western people, thought Grant, that you could sleep with their wives, despoil their daughters, sponge on them, defraud them, do almost anything that would mean at least ostracism in normal society, and they would barely seem to notice it. But refuse to drink with them and you immediately became a mortal enemy. What the hell?

I’m not so sure about the psychological thriller tag. Sure, Grant falls victim to a group of sickos. But he had opportunities to opt out of this destructive journey. He knew he should not go back to the gambling game. Yet he did. He could have looked for Crawford and ask for help at the police station. Yet he didn’t. Cook doesn’t let us see Grant as a victim, except of his own weakness as he writes:

He almost smiled at the enormous absurdity of it all. But what was so fantastic was that there had been no element of necessity about it all. It was as though he had deliberately set about destroying himself; and yet one thing had seemed to lead to the next.

Wake in Fright is a hell of a ride with a man unconsciously led to self-destruction in the hard environment of a small outback town in Australia. In a way, Grant is a bit like Meursault, the main character of L’Etranger by Albert Camus. Both have their mind altered by heat and live moments of their lives as in a daze, not willing to engage with life, probably unable to find a proper meaning to it all.

Kenneth cooks us a stunning and memorable story of a man left in a harsh environment whose codes he fails to understand. A man not sure enough of who he is and where he stands in the world to resist the destructive forces of The Yabba.

Highly recommended.

Pike by Benjamin Whitmer – Excellent American Neo-Noir

December 2, 2018 8 comments

Pike by Benjamin Whitmer. (2015) French title: Pike. Translated by Jacques Mailhos.

We are now in December and I’m starting to realize I still have FIVE unwritten billets and that I have to catch up within a month. That’s going to be a challenge considering my current workload and family occupations. I would like to say that I have a method to tackle the pile, like alternating FIFO and LIFO methods but I don’t. So today, it’s going to be Pike by Benjamin Whitmer. It’s crime fiction again, a series of billets I might close with Wake in Fright by Kenneth Cook.

Set in the Appalachees and in the 1980s, Pike is American neo-Noir brought to the French public by the excellent publisher Gallmeister.

Douglas Pike is retired from crime and murder. He’s back in his hometown in the Apalachees and makes a living doing odd jobs with his partner, Rory. Pike tries to survive, to leave the past behind and takes care of Rory in a gruff and discreet way. His life changes when he discovers that his estranged daughter Sarah overdosed and he’s the only one left to take care of his twelve-year-old granddaughter Wendy. A granddaughter he’d never heard of until that day.

While he’s busy settling into a new life with a kid and bonding with Wendy, he soon realizes that Derrick Kreiger, a corrupt cop from Cincinnati, takes an unhealthy interest in his granddaughter. Protecting Wendy will push him to investigate what happened to his daughter and to try to understand what Derrick Kreiger does behind his police officer uniform.

Pike is a pure Noir gem with a great gallery of characters. Pike is still haunted by his past, does his best to move on but Wendy will force him to dive back into his old world. He’s taken Rory under his wing, being a father figure to this young adult who tries to do something with his life and defy the odds his background put against him. Iris is a waitress at a diner Rory and Pike go to. She has a soft spot for Pike and is part of his new “family” or support system in Nanticote. There’s all damaged by life. Here’s Pike and Wendy’s first meeting at the diner, under the Iris’ and Rory’s incredulous eyes.

It gives you a idea of Whitmer’s style, of the atmosphere of the novel and of Pike’s task with Wendy. She’s a tough cookie and she’s not ready to open herself to this stranger of a grandpa.

The other side of the book is the manhunt in Cincinnati, the depiction of a corrupted police force and its meddling with organized crime. Derrick Kreiger is not someone you want to mess up with and Pike arriving in the picture doesn’t sit well with him.

You’ll have to read it to know more…

As always, Gallmeister did a wonderful job of bringing excellent American literature to the French public. Pike will be a success with fans of classic Noir. It’s like watching a movie. Benjamin Whitmer was in bookstore in Lyon recently for a reading and a book signing. I wish I could have gone and met him. *sigh* I need to work on this quote by Michel Serres Travailler moins pour lire plus. (Work less to read more)

PS: I can’t help commenting the American and French cover of the book. The French one is so much better, at least for me. It conveys everything, the main protagonists, the atmosphere and the danger.

Heatwave by Jean Vautrin – French Noir

November 27, 2018 4 comments

Heatwave by Jean Vautrin (1982) Not available in English.

Jean Vautrin (1933-2015) was a writer and a scriptwriter. Heatwave was our Book Club pick for November and it was a stark contrast to The Ice Princess, the crime fiction we read the month before.

Heatwave opens on a runaway criminal, Jimmy Cobb who has attacked a bank in Paris. He’s in the Beauce countryside, the agricultural region near Paris. There are large flat fields there and nowhere to hide. The police are after him and he’s digging a hole in a field to hide his loot from the robbery. He’s dressed in an elegant suit and it draws the attention of eleven-years old Chim. He sees him from his hiding place and decides to steal the money and hide it somewhere else.

Chim comes from the Morsang farm, the closest house. That’s where Jimmy Cobb decides to hide when the police’s chopper starts making rounds above his head.

The Morsang farm is the home of a violent and mostly uneducated family. Horace Maltravers married Jessica to take over the farm and its vast estate. His drunkard brother Socrate lives with them. Horace has a grownup daughter from a previous marriage, Ségolène. She’s not right in her head and a total nympho. She keeps assaulting men around her. Jessica had Chim with a seasonal farmhand before her marriage to Horace. Three employees work on the farm, Saïd from Algeria, Soméca Buick from an African country and Gusta Mangetout.

At the Morsang farm, they all have issues, except the employees. Horace is extremely violent and volatile. He hates Chim. Socrate could be sensible if drinking had not changed him into a useless slob. Jessica has locked herself into her housework, bringing cleanliness in the house since she can’t have a safe and sane home. Ségolène is creepy, always trying to corner males employees. They are all horrible in their own way. Horace and Ségolène clearly have mental health problems. Socrate and Jessica try to survive in this environment in their own way. And Chim is damaged for life.

The novel is a man chase, the police being after Cobb and the inhabitants of the farm willing to take advantage of his presence for their personal gain. Will Cobb get out alive of the farm? Will the police catch him or will the Morsang inhabitants get to him first? The whole novel happens in the span of two days.

Heatwave is a polar written in the pure tradition of classic Noir in bad French translations. In the 1950s and 1960s, most of the American crime fiction was published in the famous Série Noire. They were published quickly, translated in a way to respond to the French public, sometimes without much respect for the original text. If passages were too long, they were cut to keep the book within a certain number of pages. Thick argot was used, some of which got old quickly and is incomprehensible today.

Heatwave was written in this Série Noire tradition. It’s a polar à la San Antonio. It’s full of play-on-words, of twisted French and old-fashioned gangster way of speaking. When I started to read it, right after The Emperor’s Tomb I felt disoriented.

Heatwave is written in a style that requires a bit of adjustment from the reader. It’s also a succession of quick vignettes that betray Vautrin’s experience with cinema. It felt stroboscopic. It was like entering a nightclub and needing a moment to adjust to the place, the noise, the dark and the flashing lights. At first, you’re overwhelmed. Then, once you’ve been here for a while, you get used to it and you start seeing details, enjoying the décor and having fun. The reader must reach page 50 to get accustomed to Vautrin’s brand of writing and to start enjoying the atmosphere and the inventive style. It’s better to read Heatwave in a few sittings or the process of adjusting to the ambiance is to be done each time. Among the horrible argot, we can find poetic descriptions of the landscape,

Vingt-deux heures cinq

C’est l’heure des exhalaisons soudaines. Au moindre souffle de la brise, les odeurs voyagent à dos de pollen ou de petit lapin. Chiendent, blé tendre, coquelicots, fleurs neuves, les senteurs de la nuit sortent de terre. Elles remercient le soleil

10 :25 pm

It’s the time for sudden exhalations. With each breath of breeze, scents travels on pollenback or on rabbitback. Couch grass, common wheat, poppies, new flowers, the night’s scent come out of the earth. They are thankful for the sun.

and quirky descriptions.

It’s also extremely violent. Gunshots, torture and violence to women. I was also bothered by the descriptions of Saïd and Soméca Buick, full of clichés coming from colonial France. Maybe it was tolerated in 1982, twenty years after the war in Algeria and decolonization but now, it’s shocking. And I’m happy to be shocked because it means that things have improved.

I thought it was rather unrealistic as far as police procedural is concerned. The GIGN intervenes. They’re Special Operations in the gendarmerie, elite corps who come in touchy situations. They don’t show their face to cameras and don’t give their names. And here, they introduce themselves as country gendarmes do. But I guess accuracy is not the point of the book.

I don’t know what to think about Heatwave. It’s obviously classic noir, written into a tradition. The gangster jargon used here and there felt like a pastiche, a will to follow the Série Noire rules. It is a pity that Vautrin tried too hard to do that because when his own writing dominates, it’s powerful with clear-cut descriptions, sharp portrays and poetic descriptions of the landscapes.

Heatwave is not available in English but it has been made into a film directed by Yves Boisset. The lead actors are Lee Marvin, Miou-Miou, Jean Carmet and Victor Lanoux. I won’t be watching the movie because I have a better tolerance to violence when it’s written than when it’s on film. When I read, I manage to block images from flooding my head, something I can’t do with films.

For foreign readers curious about Vautrin’s style, I would recommend to check out the sample on Amazon, you’ll see what it sounds like.

The Ice Princess by Camilla Läckberg

November 25, 2018 13 comments

Our Book Club had picked The Ice Princess by Camilla Läckberg for October. It’s the first volume of the Erica Falck series. We are in Fjällbacka, during the winter and Alexandra Wijkner was found murdered. She was discovered by Erica Falck, a former classmate who is back in her hometown to tidy her childhood home after her parents were killed in an accident. Erica is a writer of biographies. She’s on a deadline to finish her book and working in Fjällbacka, far from the distractions of Stockholm works for her. She doesn’t have any family left there, her only sister lives in Stockholm too.

The plot centers around the personality of the victim, her loveless marriage to Karl Erik, her relationship with her parents and the strange events that happened in her early teenage years. Erica and Alexandra were best friends until her family suddenly moved out without telling goodbye to anyone. Has Alexandra’s murder anything to do with her past and how is the powerful Lorentz family involved in this story? That’s the murder plot.

The police in charge of the investigation is led by an insufferable chief called Bertil Mellberg and the inspector actually doing the ground work is Patrik Hedström, also a former schoolmate of Erica’s. He used to have a huge crush on her when they were younger.

Erica gets involved in the investigation, while finishing her book, starting to write a new one about Alexandra’s murder and dealing with her sister’s problems and her terrible brother-in-law. Meanwhile, Patrik and Erica get reacquainted and their relationship hops on an uncontrollable sleigh of soppiness, with fluttering hearts, ovaries in overdrive and cooking-is-the-way-to-a-man’s-heart seduction moves.

I found the story easy to read, not very original but entertaining even if I have guessed a key element in the mystery. And believe me, this is not a good sign because I never try to solve the murder when I read crime fiction, I have more fun enjoying the ride. The mystery part was OK but déjà vu, in my opinion.

The other elements around the investigation have been done before too. Erica’s sister is victim of domestic violence and the romance is too cheesy for my tastes. I guess it’s so successful because you can relate to Erica who is an average citizen. The only fun character is the awful chief of police. For the rest, I had the feeling that it lacked characterization and that the plot was too weak. It doesn’t compare well to other series like the ones written by Anne Perry, Louise Penny or Fred Vargas.

I’d say it’s good for a train journey or a plane trip but nothing to write home about.

Now a word about the French translation. I thought it was weird. Sometimes the syntax leaped out of the page. But what surprised me most were old-fashioned expressions like se lever à l’heure du laitier (to get up with the milkman), the use of baise-en-ville to describe the overnight bag Erica takes for her date with Patrik. tata instead of tatie (auntie), casse-croûte instead of sandwich. The translators are Lena Grumbach and Marc de Gouvernain. I’ve already read translations by Lena Grumbach since she also translates Katarina Mazetti but I never noticed anything about her translations, so I wonder if this old-fashioned vocabulary was in the original. Strange.

The Emperor’s Tomb by Joseph Roth – German Lit Month – Wunderbar

November 18, 2018 16 comments

The Emperor’s Tomb by Joseph Roth (1938) French title: La crypte des capucins. Translated from the German by Blanche Gidon.

Nous avions tous perdu notre position, notre rang, notre maison, notre argent, notre valeur, notre passé, notre présent, notre avenir. Chaque matin en nous levant, chaque nuit en nous couchant, nous maudissions la mort qui nous avait invités en vain à son énorme fête. We all had lost our position, our rank, our house, our home, our money, our worth, our past, our present and our future. Each morning when we got up, each night when we went to bed, we cursed death who had invited us in vain to her grand party.

The Emperor’s Tomb (1938) is a sequel to The Radetzky March (1932). You don’t need to have read the first one to read the other but both feature the same Trotta family. The Radetsky March takes us from the 1860s to 1916, the year the Emperor Franz Joseph died. Roth pictures the tragic fate of the Trotta family, a fate that is linked to the slow death of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He shows how rotten the Empire had become and how ready to collapse it was.

Then The Emperor’s Tomb pictures the Trotta family after the collapsing due to WWI, during the fragile First Austrian Republic up to the Anschluss in 1938.

It begins in April 1914. Franz-Ferdinand Trotta is 23. He’s young, idle and spends his nights drinking and partying with his friends. He’s living a dissipated life and barely sees the sun because he only lives at night. He’s influenced by his friends, he wants to fit in so badly that he represses his true self. He doesn’t openly court Elisabeth, one of his friends’ sister, because it was not fashionable to be in love. He’s carefree to the point of carelessness. He’s totally unprepared for adult life and he’ll have to grow up quickly because his life is about to change.

Franz’s father has just died and left some money to Joseph Branco, a cousin of the peasant branch of the Trotta family, the one still living in Slovenia. Branco is a farmer during the summer and a travelling chestnut seller during the winter. Franz-Ferdinand welcomes him with open arms, somehow glad to be with someone who is a link to his countryside roots.

During his winter travels around the Empire, Branco has befriended a Jewish coachman from Galicia. His name is Marès Reisiger and he has a son who wants to study music in Vienna. Franz calls for a favor and the young man gets in his music school.

A bond is formed between Franz, Branco and Reisiger, strong enough for Franz to go to Galicia during the summer 1914. That’s where he is when WWI starts. He comes back to Vienna to join his regiment, marries Elisabeth in haste and in fear of not coming back and leaves town. He quickly asks to change from his designated regiment to a less prestigious one to be with Branco and Reisiger. They are quickly captured by the Russian army and spend the whole war in a prisoner camp in Siberia.

Back to Vienna, Franz tries to adapt to the new reality of his life. Everything he knew has fallen apart. The Austro-Hungarian Empire is dead. His wife is a stranger. His mother is ageing and declining. He has no trade and is unfit to earn any money. His fortune is vanishing quickly, due to poor investments and the economic situation of the country.

Franz is a disarming, charming and yet infuriating character. His candidness is endearing and he doesn’t try to hide his flaws. He’s not class-conscious and doesn’t look down on Branco. He never makes fun of him, even when he takes him to breakfast in a posh café in Vienna and he asks for soup because that’s what he eats at home. He’s not ashamed of him and he even envies him in a way. Branco knows his place in the world, in the society.

Franz partially died when the empire fell. He’s a man from the past and he has trouble adjusting to the moving reality. Roth describes a feeling of disorientation and loss. Franz has lost his identity. He feels “ ‘extraterritorialised’ from the land of the living.” Franz is nostalgic of monarchy made of different countries and people, patched up into an empire through administrative and everyday life landmarks, like the railway stations and the post office. There are no borders and things feel familiar everywhere he goes. You could say that it is the beauty of colonialism seen from the side of the colonizer and that the people of the Austro-Hungarian empire certainly didn’t feel that way. But Roth argues through Franz that the Empire collapsed because it failed to see that the people from the Slovenia, Galicia, Romania, etc. were its wealth thanks to their diversity. Vienna made the mistake to turn to their German roots instead of embracing the vitality and diversity of the people of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The Interwar period in Vienna sounds similar to the Interwar period in Budapest described in books by Zsigmond Móricz or Dezső Kosztolányi even if the description of the political context is not the aim of their books.

Contrary to The Radetsky March, The Emperor’s Tomb is a first-person narrative. Franz talks to us, bares his soul and lets us in. He shows his helplessness. He knows he’s not equipped to survive properly in this new world. He tries to stay afloat  and live one day at a time. He’s oblivious to the changing political context, he’s too focused on what he lost. He’s like the frog who is in a water bucket and the temperature of the water increases, increases, increases and the frog is dead before it realized it was time to leap out of the water.

The Emperor’s Tomb is really moving even if I wanted to shake Franz and urge him to live his live instead of suffering through it. But Franz, like the monarchy he was born under, is an oak with old roots. And oaks, like Lafontaine told us, do not bend like reeds when the wind is too strong. They get uprooted and die.

There would be a lot more to explore about this book, about its form and its substance. I didn’t write anything about its style but it was exceptional. I have read The Emperor’s Tomb in an excellent French translation by Blanche Gidon who knew Roth when he was exiled in Paris in the 1930s. My paperback edition includes a good foreword by Dominique Fernandez and a touching afterwords by Blanche Gidon about her last meeting with Roth and her take on The Emperor’s Tomb. There’s an English translation by Michael Hoffman, and I heard from you all that he’s a good translator.

This was my second contribution to Caroline’s and Lizzy’s German Lit Month. I had The Emperor’s Tomb by Joseph Roth on my shelf and I’m happy that Lizzy’s readalong pushed me to read it at last.

German Lit Month: The Tobacconist by Robert Seethaler. Disappointing

November 11, 2018 24 comments

The Tobacconist by Robert Seethaler. (2012) French title: Le tabac Tresniek. Translated from the German (Austria) by Elisabeth Landes.

The Tobacconist is my first read for German Lit Month organized by Caroline and Lizzy. I’m not sure I need to introduce this novel as it has been reviewed numerous times.

The young Franz Huchel is sent from his village on the Attersee in Upper Austria to work as an apprentice at a tobacconist in Vienna. The owner, Otto Tresniek is an old friend of Franz’s mother and has accepted to take him under his wing.

Franz arrives in Vienna at the end of the summer 1937, a few months before the Anschluss. He stays with Otto Tresniek and is introduced to the tobacconist-newsdealer trade. He learns about the different kind of cigarettes and cigars and slowly gets used to reading all the newspapers everyday as a proper newsdealer should, in Otto Tresniek’s mind.

Up to that stage of the book, I enjoyed it. The descriptions of the Salzkammergut region were nice, it looked like a good coming-of-age novel in troubled times. We’re in page 43 in my French edition when Sigmund Freud enters the story and everything went downhill from there.

I disliked that Robert Seethaler felt he needed the crutch of a larger-than-life character like Freud to give substance to his story. He had a good start, why were anonymous Vienna inhabitants not enough to hold the story?

Then Franz spends a Sunday at the Prater amusement park, gets acquainted with a mysterious girl who disappears on him. This part was nice and should have ended there, as a lesson learned for young Franz. But he becomes obsessed with this girl, talks about love with Freud and decides to look for her. He finds her, her name is Aneszka and she comes from Bohemia. That thread peters out oddly and suddenly we leave his angst and Aneszka behind without really understanding why.

In the background, the Nazis take power in Austria, in the country but in the minds too. The tobacconist is attacked, the Nazi dictatorship settles in the country and the first visible deaths arrive. But to me, that part wasn’t convincing either. There is no real exploration either of what happens to the country on a political level or on what it does on people’s everyday lives. There are hints but not built well enough to create a clear picture in the reader’s mind.

The Tobacconist felt like a series of missed opportunities. To picture Vienna in 1937. To dissect how the Nazi took power in Austria. To show how a young country boy adapted to the big city and to the political context. To recreate the life of ordinary people in the Vienna of that time.

There are good ideas in this book but for me, they didn’t click together and made a convincing puzzle. And, as you can see, I have no quote to share because I didn’t highlight anything in the book. If you’ve read The Tobacconist, I hope you’ll share your opinion about it in the comments, I’m looking forward to discussing it with you.

For more enthusiastic reviews, see Lisa’s here and Susanna’s here.

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