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The Kites by Romain Gary – supplement with spoilers

May 1, 2018 Leave a comment

The Kites by Romain Gary (1980) Original French title: Les cerfs-volants.

As mentioned in my previous billet about The Kites, here are additional thoughts about the book. It’s preferable to read my other billet before this one because I’m not going to repeat the summary of the novel.

Some biographical elements about Romain Gary are necessary at this stage, before we dive into this billet together. Romain Gary was born in 1914. His name was Roman Kacew and he was a Jew from the ghetto in Wilno, Poland (now Vilnius, Lithuania) He emigrated to France with his mother Mina when he was 14. After studying law, he spent time in the aviation. When WWII started, he joined the Resistance early in 1940. He wrote his first novel, Education européenne in 1943. It was published in 1945. The Kites was published in 1980, the year he committed suicide.

The last words of The Kites are “car on ne saurait mieux dire” (“Because there isn’t anything better to say than that”) It’s like the end of his personal literary journey. He’s said it all and The Kites is a book that responds to Education européenne. His work has come to a full circle.

Indeed, Education européenne tells the love story of Janek and Zosia, two Polish resistants during WWII. They are in the Polish forest, in winter, trying to hide and fight. The Kites tells the love story between Ludo and Lila and resistance in Normandy. It is a bridge between Poland and France, through Lila and Ludo. It’s the parallel story to Education européenne and Gary refers to the resistance in Poland, in passing. First, Tad, Lila’s brother is presumably in the Polish forest, fighting against the Germans. And in Education européenne, one of the characters is named Tadek. Some passages refer to the Polish resistance, like here:

Il est normal que Lila ne soit pas là à m’attendre, car si nous ne savons pas grand-chose des maquis polonais et des groupes de partisans qui se terrent dans la forêt, je me doute bien que la réalité [Les Nazis] là-bas doit êre encore plus vigilante, plus odieuse et plus difficile à vaincre que chez nous. It’s normal for Lila not to be there waiting for me. We don’t know much about the Polish Resistance and the partisan grups hiding out in the forest, but I can only imagine than reality [the Nazis] must be even more vigilant there than it is here, more odious, more difficult to vanquish.

For me, The Kites is a way for Gary to look back at his first novel, the one that launched him as a writer.

I think there are also biographical elements imbedded in The Kites. Lila is a representation of France, Ludo is a bit like Gary himself and their long-lasting love story is a representation of Gary’s love for France, his adoptive country. See the coincidences:

  • Ludo first meets Lila when he’s ten. According to Laurent Seksik book, Romain Gary s’en va-t-en guerre, young Roman Kacew was 10 when his mother Mina decided to emigrate to France.
  • Ludo doesn’t see Lila for four years before she reenters his life. He’s 14 when they really get to know each other. Roman Kacew and Mina arrive in France when he’s 14.
  • Lila is part of the Polish aristocracy. Lila’s family doesn’t see Ludo as a good party for her. He’s a small French guy, not aristocratic enough. When Gary joins the French aviation, he’s the only one in his class not to be promoted officer at the end of their training. Most probably because he was Jewish. Ludo isn’t good enough for Lila, the French army didn’t find young Kacew good enough for France.
  • However, Lila has accepted Ludo as her lover and she fell for him too.
  • During the war, Lila disappears for a while, like the real France went in hiding, according to Gary’s vision.
  • Lila prostitutes herself to survive, her debasement mirrors France’s debasement of the Vichy Regime. It doesn’t mean it was right, that it was inevitable but it is still an ugly stain in France’s history.
  • Then Lila comes back and resists.
  • When the war ends, she’s broken, stained but still alive and Ludo still loves her.
  • With Ludo’s behavior during the war, he’s now worthy of Lila. He became an aristocrat in post-war France thanks to his actions. The same happened to Roman Kacew. He was made Compagnon de la Libération, he was trustworthy for the new government and he became a diplomat.

That’s a lot of coincidences, no? It’s typical for Gary to write things upside down and make of France a Polish woman and of himself a young French man.

Other biographical elements are present in the Bronicki family. Here’s a quick description of them:

Il m’informa que Stanislas de Bronicki, le père de « Mademoiselle » était un financier de génie ; sa femme avait été une des plus grandes comédiennes de Varsovie, qui se consolait d’avoir quitté le théâtre en faisant continuellement des scènes. He informed me that Stanislas de Bronicki, “Mademoiselle’s” father, was a wizard financier, and that his wife had been one of Warsaw’s greatest comediennes. She had given up her career, but compensated for the sacrifice by constantly making scenes. (p27)

Countess Bronicka seems to share traits of character with Mina, Gary’s mother. She was a former comedienne and she was constantly making scenes. In chapter 17, Count Bronicki is working on a scheme to earn money by selling pelts. There’s a full page about it and isn’t it a coincidence that Arieh Kacew, Gary’s father was a furrier in Wilno?

I’m sure there are other clues that escaped my notice. Gary’s suicide wasn’t done on a whim or during a bout of despair. It was prepared. This was prepared too. And it’s hard not to imagine that he thought that Because there isn’t anything better to say than that it was time to bow out.

The Kites (Les cerfs-volants) by Romain Gary

April 29, 2018 18 comments

The Kites by Romain Gary (1980) Original French title: Les cerfs-volants.

The Kites is a novel by Romain Gary translated by Miranda Richmond-Mouillot. Although it was published in French in 1980, its English version was only released end of 2017. I am crazy enough about this writer to have ordered the English translation of a book I’m perfectly able to read in the original. I wanted to see how the translation was, how the translator managed to give back Gary’s peculiar style. All the English translations in this billet are by Ms Richmond-Mouillot.

Lisa from ANZ LitLovers and I decided to read The Kites along. With time difference between Australia and France, her review is already available and as I write these lines, I haven’t read it.

The Kites starts in 1930 and ends just after WWII. Ludovic Fleury lives in Cléry, a small village in Normandy. He’s an orphan who lives with his uncle Ambrose. Ambrose is a bachelor, a postman with a passion for kites. He makes wonderful kites that sing the beauty of life and feature the great names of French history, be it literary or political. He’s famous for them and he became quite an attraction in the neighborhood. Ambrose’s friend Marcellin Duprat runs a gourmet restaurant, Le Clos Joli. Tourists go to Cléry to have a wonderful meal at the Clos Joli and see Ambrose’s artistic kites.

Ambrose is a full-on Republican, someone who values the heroes of the French Republic. He celebrates them through his kites and he passes this vision on to Ludo. The young boy is the product of the Third Republic, educated in the public school-system. From a very young age, Ludo is attached to historical figures and suffers from too much memory. He remembers too much and he’s able to do complex calculation in his head or to remember lists of numbers, something that will prove helpful for clandestine activities.

In 1930, Ludovic is 10 when he meets Lila Bronicka for the first time. She’s the daughter of a Polish aristocrat who owns an estate near Cléry. Ludovic is bewitched by Lila.  Victim of his infallible memory, he will wait for her return during four years. He’s totally and irrevocably in love with her.

Lila returns to Cléry with her family, her German cousin Hans von Schwede and their protégé Bruno. Ludo befriends Lila and her brother Tad. Things are more complicated with Hans and Bruno who are also in love with her. Ludo is invited to their estate and gets to know her and her family. In the 1930s, Lila spends all her summers in Cléry and their love relationship grows. Meanwhile, Ludo works as Count Bronicki’s secretary. In 1939, Ludo goes to Poland to spend the summer at Lila’s and he’s still there when WWII starts.

How will Ludo and Lila survive this war? You’ll have to read the book to discover it.

The Kites is a typical love story by Romain Gary. Absolute. Irrevocable. Made of mutual imagination and unbreakable bonds. As Lila explains to Ludo:

Je comprends qu’on meure d’amour, parce que parfois, c’est tellement fort, que la vie n’arrive pas à tenir le coup, elle craque. Tu verras, je te donnerai des livres où ça arrive. I understand dying of love, because sometimes it’s so strong that life can’t withstand it, it snaps. You’ll see, I’ll give you books where that happens. (chapter 6 p37/38)

When Lila and Ludo are adolescent, they try to imagine their future. And Lila’s words reflect Gary’s vision of youth.

Je peux encore tout rater, disait Lila, je suis assez jeune pour ça. Quand on vieillit, on a de moins en moins de chances de tout rater parce qu’on n’a plus le temps, et on peut vivre tranquillement avec ce qu’on a raté déjà. C’est ce qu’on entend par « paix de l’esprit ». Mais quand on n’a que seize an et qu’on peut encore tout tenter et ne rien réussir, c’est ce qu’on appelle en général « avoir de l’avenir »… “I can still fail at everything,” Lila was saying. “I’m young enough. When you get old you have less and less opportunity to mess everything up because you run out of time, so you can live an untroubled life and be happy with what you’ve already made a mess of. That’s what they mean by ‘peace of mind’. But when you’re only sixteen you can still try everything and fail at it all, that’s what they usually call ‘having your future ahead of you.’” (chapter 8 – p55/56)

Youth is when everything’s still possible and risky. In his eyes, old age is not a time to take advantage of your past experiences but more a time to mourn the loss of possibilities. Time is running out and nothing daring can come out of it.

The Kites is more than Ludo and Lila’s challenging relationship. It’s an homage to the Resistance. Romain Gary joined the Resistance early in 1940 and his novel is an opportunity to mention names and places, a way to give them immortality through literature. As Lisa pointed out, historical details don’t fit. It doesn’t matter because it is not a historical novel. It’s a way to mention heroes from the time and especially the village of Chambon-sur-Lignon where the pastor André Trocmé and other villagers helped to save Jewish children.

The war time in The Kites is also a time to ask ourselves “What is it to be human?” After the horrors of WWII, how do we reconcile the concept of human with all this inhumanity? Inhumanity was so widespread that it must mean that it’s hidden away in each of us. How do we know if we’ll be able to chain this wild beast if dire times happened? Inhumanity is part of humanity and this war made us learn this lesson.

I cannot write about Gary without mentioning his witty style. It brings a lightness to the story, a little spring in his sentences. Despite its serious themes, it’s told with a unique sense of humor and a lot of cultural and popular references. He uses the French language in his own way, mixing expressions, thinking out of the box, putting codes upside down.

Il ne s’agissait pas de ce que j’allais faire de ma vie mais de ce qu’une femme allait faire de la mienne. It was not a question of what I would do with in life, but what a woman was going to do with mine. (chapter 17, p102)

Miranda Richmond-Mouillot did an excellent translation of Gary’s voice. Here’s the perfect example of her excellent interpretation of Gary’s mind:

En réalité, avec le genre d’esprit que tu as, mon cher frère, tu devrais être garçon de bains : tu aimes tellement donner des douches froides ! Really, dear brother, with a sense of humor like, you should take up meteorology – you just love to rain on people’s parades! (chapter 8, p52)

She managed to translate the French play-on-words with an equally good pun in English. In American, I should say. We had a little exchange about that with Lisa who was complaining that the version published in Australia was not with Australian spelling. I objected that the translation was American, with American spelling and keeping ‘mustache’ instead of ‘moustache’ kept a certain consistency in the text. Gary’s French is full of colloquialisms with some swear words. I’m not an English-speaking native but from where I stand, the differences between English and American are a lot more visible in colloquial language. And I’m not sure that an English translator would have translated putain de merde by goddammit. What do English speaking readers think about this?

Another thing about the translation. It’s not the first time that I noticed it but a level of informal language seems to be missing in English compared to French. There’s no English equivalent for words like ‘bouquin’ (book), ‘godasses’ (shoes) or ‘bagnole’ (car). It’s not vulgar, it’s warmly informal. These words convey affection of the things they refer to. It’s too bad because it brings warmth to someone’s tone. Miranda Richmond-Mouillot can’t do anything about this and her translation of Gary is still remarkable compared to the original.

The Kites has another dimension, a more personal one for Gary. I think that Ludo’s love for Lila is a representation for Gary’s love for France, his adoptive country, that Lila is a personification of France and that The Kites, Gary’s last book mirrors Education européenne, Gary’s first book. This is a trail I can’t explore without spoilers. I will write about it in another billet, you’ll be free to read it or not. I know that at least Lisa will read it.

A last word about the book covers I included in my billet. I think the American one is the best. It’s an excellent representation of the book with the kites, the French flag, the Lorraine cross representing the Resistance and Lila’s face on a kite. It’s perfect. The French one with the postman is my old edition and it represents uncle Ambrose and his kites. It gives a good idea of the humorous thread of the book and of its “Douanier-Rousseau” vibe but leaves out Ludo and Lila, the main protagonists. The other French one is terrible: it’s only Lila as a femme fatale and The Kites is a tale, told by a story-teller and the naïve tone of the narration is totally missing, just as the kites and their symbolic value is left behind.

I hope this billet will prompt you to read The Kites, a lovely book by my favorite writer.

The Killer Koala: Humorous Australian Bush Stories by Kenneth Cook.

April 16, 2018 12 comments

The Killer Koala – Humorous Australian Bush Stories by Kenneth Cook (1986) French title: Le koala tueur et autres histoires du bush. Translated from the English by Mireille Vignol.

I bought The Killer Koala, humorous Australian Bush Stories by Kenneth Cook at the Fête du Livre de Bron and it seemed to be a common collection of short stories published in France. Since I’m reading Australian books this year, it sounded a light and funny read. I wasn’t mistaken, these fifteen short-stories are a wild ride through Australia. Not sure they are good for tourism, though. They might frighten potential visitors.

To write this billet, I tried to find the list of the short stories’ original titles and I discovered that it’s OOP in the English-speaking world and I couldn’t find the table of content of this collection of short stories. So, sorry, I can’t give you the list. If anyone has it, please feel free to post them in a comment below.

Kenneth Cook (1929-1987) is best known for his Noir novel Wake In Fright, a book I’ll read too. The Killer Koala is part of a trilogy of short stories, the other volumes being Wombat Revenge and Frill-Necked Frenzy. He loved the Australian bush and all the stories are related to his supposedly true adventures in the outback. They are too extraordinary to be invented, he said.

I think that all the Australian states and territories have at least one dedicated story. Let’s me see:

  • Queensland, north of Mackay: With poisonous snakes like black snakes and king browns, it’s better not to fall asleep in an aquarium full of them,
  • Northern Territory, near Arnhem: There’s a story featuring the violent sex life of crocodiles and another story is about venomous snakes,
  • Tasmania, Kudulana island and its irate koala that grips you like vise,
  • South Australia, Coober Pedy and its crazy opal miners.
  • New South Wales, near Sydney: another encounter with poisonous snakes,
  • New South Wales, the narrator is at a friend’s farm where he performed a rectal injection on a female elephant,
  • Queensland, Cape York and its deathly crocodiles,
  • Western Australia, in the desert where cunning Aborigines sell camel tours to naïve tourists,
  • South Australia, near Marree: our narrator encounters a strange cat while bringing cattle to the Marree railway station,
  • New South Wales, the Macquarie swamps and its wild boars,
  • Western Australia, near Kalgoorlie and its gold trafficking,
  • Queensland, near Rockhampton, where his crazy dog George keeps bringing him a poisonous snake as a gift,
  • Queensland, Airlie Beach, where he almost drowns when he goes diving in the Great Corral Reef.

After reading these stories, only Victoria seems a safe place to be in Australia. Strangely, there’s no encounter with wandering kangaroos or monstrous spiders or poisonous jelly fishes. They must be too common, I don’t know. Or they’re part of the Wombat Revenge.

Kenneth Cook is the Australian equivalent of Jim Harrison, I think. They both were bon vivant, liked food and alcohol and had the body to prove it. Working out wasn’t their thing. They loved the wilderness in their country, Australia for Cook, the Upper Peninsula for Harrison. Some of the stories also reminded me of Craig Johnson’s Wait For Signs. Twelve Longmire Stories, probably because of the hilarious story involving an owl, a bear, a tourist and a Porta Potty. The three writers share a love for life, a good dose of humanity and a deep respect for the natives.

All along the stories, we see the narrator in dangerous situations, always told with a fantastic sense of humour. This large man who wasn’t in the best shape ends up in situation where he needs to run, walk, flee, swim, crawl or ride a camel to get out of perilous adventures. He’s not as good a gunman as he should be, which endangers him. He’s open and trusting and this leads him to interact with swindlers, nutcases, poachers and other various adventurers. In these stories, he has dubious encounters that almost lead him to disaster. It’s normal, otherwise there wouldn’t be anything funny and gripping to tell. However, I bet that he also met great people through his travels and thanks to his openness.

When you read The Killer Koala, it’s not surprising that Kenneth Cook died of a heart attack in the Australian bush in 1987. If he really lived the way he describes in his short stories, he didn’t treat his body well and pushed it to its limits. I hope he died happy, doing what he loved.

If anyone from Australia has read this, I’d love to hear your thoughts about it. If you want to know what these stories sound like, I found the text of The Killer Koala here.

PS: Funny translation anecdote. I was reading several stories in a row and all involved animals. So, I thought that each story was about a different animal. When I reached the story Cent cannettes, I expected a story about a hundred quills (as ducks or cannette in French) and I read a story about someone drinking a hundred beer bottles (also a cannette in French)!

Volkswagen Blues by Jacques Poulin – Road trip from Gaspé to San Francisco via the Oregon Trail

April 2, 2018 14 comments

Volkswagen Blues by Jacques Poulin (1988) Original French title: Volkswagen Blues.

Volkswagen Blues caught my attention because it’s a road trip from Gaspé, Québec to San Francisco via the Oregon Trail and it goes through places I’ve been to.

The trip starts in Gaspé, the far east of Québec, a beautiful place where they have the phare du bout du monde, the lighthouse at land’s end. It’s the story of a forty-years-old man from Québec City who’s looking for this brother Théo and the last time he sent him a postcard, it was from Gaspé. He meets a young woman who’s half Native Canadian – half white. She’s from the Montagnais tribe and her Indian name is Pitsémine.

Both characters don’t have a real name. The man is a novelist whose nom de plume is Jack Waterman. He nicknames the girl La Grande Sauterelle, the Tall Grasshopper. The narration alternates between calling the man The man or Jack. The girl is mostly the girl or La Grande Sauterelle and sometimes Pitsémine. It’s hard to ignore that the man chose a penname composed of Jack (like Kerouac) and Waterman (a brand of fountain pens, an instrument for a writer). I couldn’t help thinking of Van Gogh with a brother named Théo.

Names are important details as they are both on an identity quest. Jack has a sort of mid-life crisis that pushes him to look for his estranged brother. They haven’t seen each other for twenty years. La Grande Sauterelle has trouble with her mixed origins. This common point brings them together and they start a tentative friendship.

Gaspé

La Grande Sauterelle decides to embark on Jack’s VW bus and be his companion on the road. She has a kitten as a pet, his bus is like a pet to him and their common pet project is to find Théo. The starting point of their trip is an old postcard from Théo with a quote by Jacques Cartier, the French explorer who arrived in Gaspé, discovered Canada and claimed it as French territory. Théo was fascinated by the exploration of territories in Canada and the United States.

From one place to the other, they follow Théo on his trip to San Francisco via the Oregon Trail. During their journey, they learn about the Indian tribes who used to live there, revisit the story of the conquest of the West. They’re on the trails of the pioneers and their wagons. They encounter historical places of this westward migration and its difficulties. They also explore the terrible fate of the Native Americans, the massacres of the Indian wars and the extermination of the bison and the Plains Indian populations.

It’s a trip that reflects on the construction of North America. In its way, it’s a colonization war and shows that violence is at the basis of the construction of Canada and the USA. Violence against Native Americans but also violence of the climate and living conditions of the pioneers. All this is explored in mild tones, Jacques Poulin is a soft writer. His characters are friends, lovers sometimes but sex is more a comfort than anything else. They’re both adrift, looking for their place in the world. Who is the man? Is he Jack the writer, Théo’s brother or someone else? La Grande Sauterelle explains how tough life was for her parents and herself. They were ostracized in both communities, being a mixed couple was a tough choice to live with.

Volkswagen Blues has the music of mild rain, a comforting sound. I wanted to know how their trip would end, to see who they’d meet on the way and to which places they’d go. Like I said at the beginning, I’ve been to several places they visit on their trip. Gaspé, Québec City, Chicago, St Louis, San Francisco. I’ve been to some of the museums they visit and this personal side added to my reading. I enjoyed being with Jack and La Grande Sauterelle, two persons who are very different but adjust to each other and live in harmony. They accept each other the way they are, without a question, without judgment. They slip into each other’s life and habits to live this road trip together.

This is a book I bought in Montreal, which explains why I have the Quebec edition and not the French one. All the dialogues in English speaking places are partly in English, without translation. I don’t know what choice the French publisher Actes Sud made. Did they translate the passages in footnotes? As always, French from Québec has a special ring to it with its own words like chum, its expressions like faire le pouce for to hitchhike, where a French speaker would say faire du stop. I love the word cuisinette for kitchenette and still don’t understand why they didn’t find another word for coke and just use the English term.

I had a very peaceful and pleasant literary trip with these two lost souls. Volkswagen Blues is a quirky book told in mild tones but it still presses on difficult issues, to try to diffuse the pain they left as a trail. This trip is like a massage to their soul, a way to ease the tension, work in the knots they carry with them in the hope that they are gone when the journey ends.

Other review by Leaves and Pages: Crossing America in search of something ultimately undefined.

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.

 

The Neon Rain by James Lee Burke

February 15, 2018 12 comments

The Neon Rain by James Lee Burke (1987) French title: La Pluie de néon.

“It’s not a matter of guts, my friend,” Murphy said. There were small breadcrumbs in the whiskers on his chin. “Some people are adverbs, others are nouns.”

After reading Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead, I turned to The Neon Rain by James Lee Burke because I wanted to read another book set in New Orleans and wash away the memory of DeWitt’s phony detective methods. The Neon Rain is the first book of the series featuring Lieutenant Dave Robicheaux, a police officer working for the New Orleans PD. He’s paired with Cletus Purcel, a cop with old-fashioned methods who drinks away his personal problems. Cletus is a liability in their partnership because he’s not at the best of his abilities and because of his dubious morals.

When the book opens, Robicheaux learns from a convict on death row that the mob has a contract on him. His life is threatened because he found the corpse of a young girl in the bayou and doesn’t want to let it go. The local police won’t really work on the case because she’s a poor girl and a prostitute. Robicheaux doesn’t give up, puts his nose where it doesn’t belong and gets in the middle of an IRS investigation, a FBI investigation, rotten cops, arm trafficking and political interference in the civil war in Nicaragua. Needless to say, none of the participants want a lone wolf investigating their business. Life gets dangerous for Dave Robicheaux.

Apart from the investigation, James Lee Burke introduces us to Dave Robicheaux, his present and past life, to New Orleans and Louisiana.

Dave Robicheaux is a Cajun, I suppose his last name gives it away: nothing sounds more French that words that end with eaux. His brother Jimmie is friend with the New Orleans mob and has activities that flirt with legality but he never goes too far. Let’s say he’s friendly with gray areas. The Robicheaux brothers have been raised in the bayou by their father, who did as best he could as an illiterate single dad.

The Neon Rain was published in 1987, it’s not a surprise that its main character was incorporated and shipped to Viet Nam in his twenties. Robicheaux didn’t come back intact from this dirty war and its remnants weigh on his life. He’s a recovering alcoholic and he has been off drinking for four years when he falls off the wagon after he was kidnapped and forced to drink. This one occurrence throws him off, his intoxication is immediate and massive.

After four years of sobriety I once again wanted to fill my mind with spiders and crawling slugs and snakes that grew corpulent off the pieces of my life that I would slay daily.

James Lee Burke shows us what a powerful drug alcohol is and how strong its hooks are once they are clawed in someone’s skin. The only other time I’ve seen alcohol described that way is in Leaving Las Vegas by John O’Brien. Nothing glamorous in it.

Robicheaux’s hope for the future is in Annie, a social worker he meets early in the novel. She’s ready to stand by him despite his dangerous job, the damages from his time in Viet Nam and his angst. It’s a second chance at happiness with someone who accepts him as he is, baggage and all, probably because she’s as bruised and battered as him.

I loved Robicheaux’s voice. He’s full of thoughtful musings on life and about the impact of our past in our present despite all our efforts to cut it loose and focus on moving on. He tells us we should embrace it because it is part of our self.

I reflected upon the ambiguous importance of the past in our lives. In order to free ourselves from it, I thought, we treat it as a decaying memory. At the same time, it’s the only measure of identity we have. There is no mystery to the self; we are what we do and where we have been. So we have to resurrect the past constantly, erect monuments to it, and keep it alive in order to remember who we are. For some, even our darkest past moments are preferable somehow to those few interludes of peace and sunshine in the world.

It is a brave way to live and probably a wise one, one that brings peace and self-acceptance.

One of the perks of the job as a cop in New Orleans is the questioning about police methods and honor. Robicheaux reflects on his belief system, on honor and how each of us builds its own standard, the one that allows us to face the mirror every day. We all have our own limits and some give themselves a longer leash than others. Robicheaux believes in staying on the right side of law and he’s not ready to use violence. He still believes in the system…

I pretended to be a pragmatist, a cynic, a jaded war veteran, a vitriolic drunk, the last of the Louisiana badasses; but like most people I believed that justice would be done, things would work out, somebody would show up with the Constitution in his hand.

…but he’s not naïve and knows that the system has faults that profit to criminal organizations.

That sounds like a cynical conclusion for a man to arrive at while sitting on a shady stone bench on a cool morning under banana trees, but most honest, experienced cops will tell you the same thing. It’s facile to blame the Supreme Court for the pornographic bookstores and the live sex shows. They usually exist because somebody on the zoning board is getting greased. Kids don’t do dope because their parents and teachers are permissive. They do it because adults sell it to them. No psychological complexities, no sociological mysteries.

Being with Dave Robicheaux is being with someone on a quest. He hasn’t found his place in the world yet. He’s hasn’t found himself yet, he’s trying hard to pick up the pieces of his self and his life after alcohol, his personal hurricane, wrecked his life. It brought devastation to his body and mind, he’s aware that it’s a sickness that will never leave him. Alcoholism is like an alligator asleep in the bayou waters; it is rooted in his soul, under the surface, ready to strike at any moment and cut him deep or choke him.

The Neon Rain is also a tribute to New Orleans and Louisiana. Robicheaux lives on a houseboat on the Lake Pontchartrain and the view from his deck is simply stunning:

When we got to Lake Pontchartrain it was like walking out from under a layer of steam into a slap of cool, salt-smelling air. Pelicans dove for fish out of the blue sky, plummeting downward with their wings cocked behind their heads as though they had been dropped from a bomb rack, exploding in the smoky green water and rising suddenly with silvery fish flipping helplessly in their beaks. Far out on the horizon the water was capping in the sunlight, and a long, gleaming white yacht with red sails was dipping into the troughs and sending geysers of foam bursting into the air.

Beautiful, right? There are tons of descriptions of nature around New Orleans and of New Orleans itself.

A few genuine bohemians, writers, and painters still lived in the Quarter, and some professional people paid exorbitant rents for refurbished apartments near Jackson Square, but the majority of Vieux Carré residents were transvestites, junkies, winos, prostitutes, hustlers of every stripe, and burnt-out acid-heads and street people left over from the 1960s. Most of these people made their livings off middle-class conventioneers and Midwestern families who strolled down Bourbon Street, cameras hanging from their necks, as though they were on a visit to the zoo.

I wonder what remains of that after Katrina. I suppose that Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead answers that question. And the answer is : Not much. Both books have something in common: talks about food in New Orleans, which sounds pretty special : I picked up my poor-boy sandwich and started to eat. The shrimp, oysters, lettuce, onions, tomato, and sauce piquante tasted wonderful. I wonder how tasty that is…

The sauce piquante part leads me to the French vibe of the novel. For a French reader, all the French names and words create a strange feeling of familiarity. I feel at home. Names are evocative, something Proust points out brilliantly in In Search of Lost Time. Sentences like “So buy me a beignet and a coffee at the Café du Monde.” give me the impression of reading of a familiar place. I didn’t get that vibe from Gran’s book and I wonder if Burke, with his Southern English, sounds different to English natives as well. He uses phrases I would never dare to say in English because they sound too French. Here’s an example:

When you’ve hunted through the whole marsh for the bull ’gator that ate your hog and you come up empty, go back where you started and commence again.

I would never use the verb commence, I’d have the impression to make a mistake. Same for the word tranquility or the It’s facile to blame the Supreme Court you can see in a previous quote.

All this, the beignets, the Café du Monde, the Bourbon Street, the sauce piquante and the pralines make me feel close to the place, even if I’ve never been there and even if it’s actually very different from where I live.

Everything concurs to make of The Neon Rain a masterpiece of literary crime fiction. A character who has depth, baggage but not too much to make him implausible. An incredible sense of place. A fantastic literary style as you propably noticed in the previous quotes. An intriguing investigation with fascinating ramifications. Very highly recommended.

PS : Out of the three covers, I think the first one reflects better the atmosphere of the novel.

 

Homeland and Other Stories by Barbara Kingsolver

July 24, 2017 4 comments

Homeland and Other Stories by Barbara Kingsolver. (1989) French title: Une île sous le vent. Translated by Michèle Levy-Bram

Homeland and Other Stories is a collection of twelve short-stories by Barbara Kingsolver. It was first published in 1989. Set in different States, they all have a literary family tie. Most of the stories have a female narrator, a little girl or a woman. They all feature characters and families from the working class and fathers and partners are often absent or useless. They explore the central place that women occupy in life and the ambivalence of motherhood.

In Quality Time, Miriam is a single mother with a five-years old daughter, Rennie. Miriam is a working single mother. In other words, she’s a master at scheduling and organizing tasks to fit everything in her already packed agenda: chores, work, driving Rennie here and there, taking care of a million of tiny details that make everyday life. Her head is constantly populated by an army of sticky notes to make sure everything is taken care of. Rennie wants for nothing but Miriam worries and feels guilty. “Do I spend enough quality time with my daughter”, she wonders. Does that sound familiar? Kingsolver subtly reminds busy mothers that kids are easier to please than we think and that they don’t expect to live with Wonder Woman. Some things aren’t as important as they seem.

Mother and daughter relationships are also at stake on Islands on the Moon. The title of this story is the name of the trailer park where Magda and Annemarie live, separately. Magda is forty-four and she got pregnant with Annemarie when she was sixteen. Annemarie always believed that her birth was like a huge rock in the middle of Magda’s way in life. Annemarie has a nine-years old son, Leon. Magda is a militant mother, an environmentalist who brought her daughter to marches and who made and repaired things instead of buying them. Annemarie resented it and craved normalcy. Magda’s eccentricity weighted upon Annemarie and the two never found a working channel of communication. This is why they live in the same trailer park but aren’t on speaking terms. Annemarie is thrown off after Magda called her to say she was pregnant and needed someone to accompany her to her amniocentesis. Annemarie is pregnant too and had not told her mother yet, she feels that Magda steals her thunder, again. Will this reunion help them find a way to each other?

In several stories, an accident or a sudden death remind the characters that they are mortal. Life is short, nothing new here. Mostly this event pushes the characters to mull over parenthood and the implicit pact that you make with your child-to-be. As a parent responsible for a child’s wellbeing, you’re not allowed to be reckless anymore. You have to do as much as you can to stay alive until your child is grownup. In Blueprints, Lena is allergic to wasp stings. At 37, she was seriously thinking of having a child with her husband. After an anaphylactic shock and coming very close to die, she decides it’s too risky for her to be a mother. She’d worry all the time about leaving an orphan behind.

In Kingsolver’s world, society should be organized around taking a good care of children. Their needs prevail. It doesn’t mean that parents shouldn’t have lives or should make great sacrifices but that the care of children must be taken in consideration first. Children are a priority but not an excuse to avoid difficult decisions and they are more adaptable and resilient than we think. This is what the narrator in Stone Dreams discovers when her daughter Julie gives her permission to make a tough decision regarding her marriage.

These stories also explore the lot of the working class, of the minorities. They are all set in small towns in California, Kentucky, Arizona, New Mexico or Tennessee. One of the stories I liked the most was Why I Am a Danger to the Public. Vicky lives in Bolton, New Mexico and her life is a permanent fight. She’s a single mother with two children, her husband abandoned them soon after the second’s birth. She’s of Mexican origin and works in a mine. She has to fight to earn enough to raise her children. She has to fight for her rights as a Latino, as a woman working among men, as a worker and as a single mother. In the story, she’s leading a tough strike against Ellington, the company who owns and runs the mine and Bolton. Kingsolver shows us all the dirty tricks Ellington plays to break the strike and get rid of disobedient workers. It’s done with the support of the local police, more interested in helping the rich getting richer than about respecting laws. I’m sure that what Kingsolver describes is real. This is not the first time I read about the police working in favor of the powerful of the town. The last example was in Freedom’s Child by Jax Miller.

Kingsolver is a soothing writer. She looks at the world with benevolence but she’s not naïve. She’s not trying to convince us that all for the best in the best of all worlds. She chooses to look at the good in people and she attaches a great importance to our link to nature. As in some of her other books, one story features Cherokee Indians.  She’s interested in their view of the world and their traditions because they offer an alternative to our model. I like that she focuses her literature on social classes that don’t have a voice. She sounds like someone at peace with herself and her characters reflect this. They might be lost sometimes but their inner compass is never totally broken.

Homeland and Other Stories is a lovely book, one to read after a depressing one. Kingsolver doesn’t write about an idyllic world. She writes about ours, with its hurdles and joys but in such a way that you feel better.

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