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Spada by Bodgan Teodorescu – A stunning political thriller

March 25, 2018 10 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 10 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.

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