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German Lit Month : Ice Moon by Jan Costin Wagner

November 11, 2017 12 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?

Black Moses by Alain Mabanckou

November 5, 2017 16 comments

Black Moses by Alain Mabanckou (2015) Original French title: Petit Piment.

Mabanckou’s novel Black Moses opens like this:

Tout avait débuté à cette époque où, adolescent, je m’interrogeais sur le nom que m’avait attribué Papa Moupelo, le prêtre de l’orphelinat de Loango : Tokumisa Nzambe po Mose yamoyindo abotami namboka ya Bakoko. Ce long patronyme signifie en lingala « Rendons grâce à Dieu, le Moïse noir est né sur la terre des ancêtres. », et il est encore gravé sur mon acte de naissance… It all began when I was a teenager, and came to wonder about the name I’d been given by Papa Moupelo, the priest at the orphanage in Loando: Tokumisa Nzambe po Mose yamoyindo abotami namboka ya Bakoko. A long name, which in Lingala means ‘Thanks be to God, the black Moses is born on the earth of our ancestors’, and is still inscribed on my birth certificate today…

(Translation by Helen Stevenson)

With a name as long as this, a nickname was inevitable, Petit Piment it is in French (Little Pepper), Black Moses in the English translation. The tone of the book is set, the tone of a storyteller who captivates their audience with their tales. How much is true, how much is invented on the spot is debatable. Petit Piment starts the story of his life from his childhood at the orphanage to present time.

Petit Piment has spent all his formative years at the orphanage in Loango, Congo. Papa Moupelo visits the orphans every week until the Marxist revolution hits the country. The orphanage’s director is a fervent admirer of the new president and the orphanage must become a show room for the new power. Exit Papa Moupelo and his mild catechism. Welcome to zealots with the president’s Marxist gospel. Our narrator Petit Piment recalls everyday life at the orphanage with energy and vivid images. The routine, his friends, the staff with a special mention to Niangui who was like a mother to him. As the old staff is progressively replaced by new and obedient staff spewing off Marxist maxims, the orphanage becomes less of a home.

Arrive the twins Songi-Songi and Tala-Tala. They quickly become the masters of the dormitories, bullying the other orphans into submission. Somehow Petit Piment manages to remain in their good graces. When they decide to evade from the orphanage to go to the economical capital of the country, Pointe-Noire, Petit Piment trails after them. What kind of future does he have in Loango anyway?

So they leave the orphanage, totally ill prepared for the outside world. They never learnt any trade and nothing was made to prepare them for their adult life. From the way Petit Piment talks about his quotidian at Loango, he has no expectations, no idea of what his life could be after the orphanage. It’s no surprise that Petit Piment and associates become partners in crime. Young offender is their career in Pointe-Noire. Their quotidian is now made of violence, bathed in drugs and mixed with prostitution.

I enjoyed Petit Piment as a dark coming of age novel set in the tradition of oral storytelling but I was very disappointed by the ending. Until the last forty pages, I thought it was pretty good, even if it wasn’t as political as expected. I thought I’d read more about the new Marxist power and its impact on the Congolese’s lives. This thread is a bit left aside after Petit Piment left the orphanage. I thought Petit Piment was an engaging character and I enjoyed the Congo setting as I’m always curious about life in other countries.

But the ending seemed blotched. It felt like Mabanckou was on a deadline and didn’t know how to get out of his own story. He found a dubious way out that clashed with the rest of the novel. I’m sure that what he writes about, errand young gangs in Pointe Noire, is a sad reality. I would have liked something more political and the ending drifted too much from the beginning and middle of the book to be saved by great characterization or chiseled prose.

And indeed, Mabanckou’s prose is a special territory in francophone literature. It’s like the Amazonian forest, luxuriant, colorful. Full of exotic images and new ways with the French language. Like in Black Bazaar, I had fun digging out Brassens references in the text. For example, here’s an excerpt from the song La mauvaise reputation.

Quand je croise un voleur malchanceux,

Poursuivi par un cul-terreux;

Je lance la patte et pourquoi le taire,

Le cul-terreux se r’trouv’ par terre.

Je ne fais pourtant de tort à personne,

En laissant courir les voleurs de pommes ;

When I run into an unlucky thief

Chased by a hick

I stick out my foot and why keep it quiet,

The hick finds himself on the ground

Yet I don’t do harm to anyone

By letting apple thieves have a run. 

Translation from the site Brassens With English

And here’s a paragraph by Mabanckou (p133 of my French paperback edition)

Et quand d’aventures je croisais un voleur de mangues ou de papayes poursuivi par un cul-terreux du Grand Marché, je courais après le poursuivant, je lançais aussitôt ma petite patte d’emmerdeur, le cul-terreux se retrouvait par terre tandis que le délinquant, à ma grande satisfaction, prenait la poudre d’escampette et levait son pouce droit pour me remercier. And when I happened to run into a mango or papaya thief chased by a hick from the Great Market, I ran after the chaser, stuck out my pain-in-the-neck’s little foot and the hick found himself on the ground while the petty thief, to my great satisfaction, took off and gave me the thumbs up to thank me.

As you can see if you compare the two French texts, Mabanckou replays the song’s scene with several words borrowed to Brassens. Cul-terreux is not a word we use a lot anymore and when I saw it, I immediately thought about Brassens. That part was fun to me but probably lost in translation. To anglophone readers: do you have footnotes about this in the novel or notes by the translator about Mabackou’s language?

So, if you’ve never read Mabanckou, I’d recommend Black Bazaar first and this one only if you enjoyed his style.

Other reviews : Tony’s at Tony’s Reading List and Philippe’s at Les Livres que je lis. And I’m sure there are other ones as Black Moses was nominated for the Man Booker International Prize.

Your Face Will Be the Last by João Ricardo Pedro

October 27, 2017 9 comments

Your Face Will Be the Last by João Ricardo Pedro (2012) French title: La main de Joseph Castorp. Translated from the Portuguese by Elisabeth Monteiro Rodrigues.

I’m a little embarrassed with this billet. Your Face Will Be the Last by João Ricardo Pedro is not available in English. The original is in Portuguese and it’s been translated into French, Dutch and Italian. If anyone stumbling upon this entry has read it, please leave a comment and let me know what you thought about it. Because I’m totally baffled by it.

João Ricardo Pedro throws us head first in a family history. It opens with a murder in an isolated village in Portugal. Celestino is found dead and his friend, the doctor Augusto Mendes recalls how Celestino came to the village decades before. From there we wander into the doctor’s family tree and the history of Portugal. We discover how he came to live in this isolated village and how he met his wife, we hear about his son Antonió and his wife, his grandson Duarte. We go back and forth between the village and Lisbon. We are rolled around from one decade to the other with no real way to understand where we are apart from some light clues about Duarte’s age or an allusion to a historical event. Or maybe there are clues obvious to a Portuguese reader that I totally missed.

It left me puzzled, unable to set the story straight in chronological order in my head. On top of that, there’s a mystery around Duarte’s love for the piano, weird friendships and a vague link to Austria. I was totally lost.

Sure, the novel mentions major political events for Portugal in the 20th century. We guess that this family has been hit by the Salazar dictatorship (Duarte’s mother never talks about her dead parents) and has been deeply affected by the long colonial war in Angola. But it’s so messy that I got lost. I felt like walking in circle in a forest with no clue of how to make sense of what I was reading. Duarte is a very strange character that I couldn’t understand and till the end, I remained outside of the book, reading with a mind hovering over what I was reading but never immersed in the story. I never felt I was there with the characters but still wanted to know how it would end.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good novel from a literary point of view, it just didn’t work for me. It left me with the disagreeable feeling that I missed a major clue to understand it all. So I’d be grateful for explanations from readers who have read it. It’s almost German Lit Month, so Licht, mehr Licht, please!

In Lisbon by Philippe Besson

October 15, 2017 15 comments

In Lisbon by Philippe Besson (2016) Original French title : Les passants de Lisbonne.

Quand viendra le printemps,

Si je suis déjà mort,

Les fleurs fleuriront de la même manière

Et les arbres n’en seront pas moins verts

Qu’au printemps dernier.

La réalité n’a pas besoin de moi.

Fernando Pessoa

Je ne suis personne.

When spring comes,

If I’m dead already,

Flowers will blossom the usual way

And trees won’t get less green

Than the spring before.

Reality does not need me.

 Fernando Pessoa

I’m nobody.

Philippe Besson is a writer I’m really fond of. I don’t know how else to say it. He never lets me down and there are a few books by him that I haven’t read yet but I don’t want to rush to read them. I like to know they are out there and that if I need a safe bet, I can turn to this list and pick one. So, I’m going to enjoy reading them slowly. Philippe Besson has an English translator but not all of his novels are available in English. I loved Un homme accidentel which seems to be only available in Polish besides French. En l’absence des hommes has been translated into English and in other languages. The English title is In the Absence of Men and it’s a good introduction to Besson. I’ve also read De là, on voit la mer but I liked it less than the others. This brings us to Les passants de Lisbonne, another one that didn’t make it into English. I will come back to the title later.

Mathieu and Hélène stay at the same hotel in Lisbon. They are both alone, carrying around a heavy sadness that brings them together. They start talking and sharing their life stories. Besson imagined that The Big One had happened and that Hélène’s husband Vincent, who was on a business trip in San Francisco, died when his hotel collapsed. Grief made Hélène flee Paris at some point and she ended up in Lisbon. Mathieu had a long-distance relationship with Diego who is from Lisbon. He went back and forth between Paris and Lisbon. That was until he arrived from Paris to find their apartment in Lisbon empty, save from a breakup letter.

These two grieving souls will end up spending time together, talking, walking into the city, trying to move on with their life. Mathieu feels guilty when he rehashes his relationship with Diego because he thinks a broken heart is not as hard as losing a husband in such terrible circumstances.

Elle résume : « Ainsi, nous avons cela en commun, un disparu. »

Même s’il a écouté son raisonnement, il envisage encore de lui concéder que leur solitude n’est pas comparable, que la mort l’emporte forcément sur la rupture amoureuse, qu’on ne met pas sur le même plan un époux emporté par un cataclysme et un amant qui s’enfuit. Par politesse, il devrait donc admettre une forme de défaite si les chagrins se livraient un combat. Pourtant, il accepte de la rejoindre. Un disparu est un disparu. Peu importent les circonstances de la disparition. A la fin, ce qui compte, c’est qu’on est seul, affreusement seul. Dépareillé. Démuni.

She sums it up “So, we have this in common. A lost one”.

Even if he had listened to her reasoning, he still contemplates to concede that their loneliness is not comparable, that death obviously wins over breakups, that a husband who died in a cataclysm doesn’t compare to a lover who ran away. Out of politeness, he should admit a sort of defeat, if their griefs were in a duel. But he accepts to join her. A lost one is a lost one. Whatever the circumstances of the loss. In the end, what counts is that one is alone and terribly lonely. Mismatched. Helpless.

Hélène is a convincing character when she retells the shock of the catastrophe, the waiting and all the administrative nightmare that followed, on top of her pain. It could be trite, whiny and theatrical. It’s not, because Besson manages to stay on the right tune and choosing Lisbon was certainly not a coincidence. Portugal is known for the concept of saudade and for Fado music, both linked to melancoly. No city in Europe looks as much as San Francisco as Lisbon does. Look at the narrow streets,

The historic cable car,

The Ponte de 25 Abril

From Wikipedia by Vitor Oliveira

It seemed the right city to be in for Hélène to work through her grief. Mathieu helps her tame her pain and she helps him navigate through his. They are both passing in Lisbon. Their acquaintance is deep but fleeting. The title of the book is Les passants de Lisbonne. It is difficult to translate into English because, as often, the French has more meanings in one word than the English. Un passant means a passer-by and that’s what Mathieu and Hélène are, from a practical point of view. They walk around Lisbon. But passant also encapsulates the idea that they are transient in the city as foreigners and in each other’s lives as strangers. Their moment together is a parenthesis in their lives and they remain aware that the world goes on around them.

Loin d’eux, des enfants naissent et d’autres meurent, des bombes explosent dans des capitales et des routes sont tracées au milieu des déserts, des maladies frappent et des hommes sont sauvés, l’espérance de vie augmente et la famine aussi, on raconte des histoires extraordinaires dans les journaux, le monde continue. Far away from them, children are born and others die. Bombs explode in capital cities and roads are built through the desert. Illnesses strike and some people are saved. Life expectancy increases and famine too. Extraordinary stories are told in newspapers; the world goes on.

Their whole time together, their encounter, their shared time at a moment in their lives where they are the most vulnerable is precious and big for them but nothing in the grand scheme of the world. Besson does not belittle their pain but still puts it in perspective. His sensitive writing makes of Les passants de Lisbonne a lovely and poetic novel about love, loss and healing in a lovely city.

Portuguese lit: The Memorables by Lídia Jorge

September 10, 2017 20 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”

Portuguese Lit: Jesus Christ Drank Beer by Afonso Cruz

September 3, 2017 10 comments

Jesus-Christ Drank Beer by Afonso Cruz (2012) French title : Jésus-Christ buvait de la bière. Translated from the Portuguese by Marie-Hélène Piwnik.

Preamble: I translated all the quotes myself and it wasn’t easy because Afonso Cruz is a poet-novelist and my English is not good enough to translate the poetical side of his prose. As usual, I did my best and don’t hesitate to suggest other translations in the comments.

Une corde peut se tendre sur toute sa longueur, mais elle peut passer sa vie repliée sur elle-même, enroulée en dedans. Une longue corde peut n’être qu’un petit rouleau. Notre vie est comme ça aussi, comme une corde. Parfois elle se tend au-dessus de l’abîme, parfois elle est enroulée dans un placard. Elle peut unir deux lieux distants ou rester rangée, repliée sur elle-même. A rope may be stretched on its entire length but it may spend its life coiled up, withdrawn into itself. A long rope may only be a small roll. Our life is also like this, like a rope. Sometimes it’s stretched over the abyss, sometimes it’s coiled in a cupboard. It can unite two distant places together or stay put, withdrawn into itself.

This is the first glimpse of the atmosphere and style of Afonso Cruz’s Jesus-Christ Drank Beer. I was lucky to find a whole section of books in French in the Livraria Bertrand in Lisbon because I doubt I would have stumbled upon this Portuguese book in a French bookstore. It’s published by a Québec publishing house, Les Allusifs  whose objective is to publish novellas from around the world, which makes them the francophone equivalent of Pushkin Press. Many thanks to these couture publishing houses that go out of the beaten paths. But, back to Jesus-Christ Drank Beer.

We’re in the Alentejo, the region of Portugal at the East of Lisbon to the border with Spain. It’s a rural area with cork oaks, olive trees and wheat fields. It’s hot in the summer and quite dry. This is where the young Rosa lives with her ageing grand-mother. Her mother left when she was little and her father died in an accident. She’s left alone on the farm with her nan. Rosa is not even 18 but she’s already out of school and her best friend is Ari, a shepherd. Rosa and her grand-mother Antónia are dirt poor and barely manage to survive in their remote village of the Alentejo. Rosa spends her days tending to her grand-mother and keeping Ari company, who’s quietly in love with her. As their financial situation deteriorates, Rosa decides to go and work as a maid in the city.

In a nearby village lives Miss Whittemore, an English millionaire who bought out a whole ghost village. She’s quite the eccentric –she sleeps in the skeleton of a whale— and decided to renovate the whole village and import a Hindi wise man, a Yoruba medicine man, a priest and Professor Borja to bring in atheist balance. This little world revolves around lunches at Miss Whittemore’s and philosophical conversations. Professor Borja sees himself as a contemporary version of the Epicurean philosopher Diogenes of Oenoanda.

These two worlds will collide when Professor Borja hits a wild boar with his car near Rosa’s village. Despite his being an old philosopher, he falls in love with young Rosa who seems to exude sensuality. Then Antónia has an attack and gets worse. Rosa comes back to the village and her grand-mother expresses the wish to do a pilgrimage to the Holy Land before she dies. Rosa can’t afford the trip to Jerusalem and in any case, the old woman is too ill to go there. Professor Borja convinces Miss Whittemore to transform her village into a Palestine-like place and make Antónia believe that she is near Jerusalem.

I won’t tell more about plot. The sheer beauty of Jesus-Christ Drank Beer comes from the perfect mix of craziness, eccentricity, poetry, fondness for the Alentejo and thoughts about life and human condition. Here’s a reflection on the work of firefighters who are called in case of a fire but more often when someone feels suddenly ill or has an accident. Afonso Cruz muses:

Les pompiers devraient lutter contre le feu, l’élément d’Héraclite. Au lieu de ça, ils luttent contre le temps. Une lutte chimérique. Pour lutter contre le feu, ils utilisent son grand ennemi, l’eau, mais pour combattre le temps ils n’ont qu’un brancard, un tensiomètre et une bouteille d’oxygène. Et, bien sûr, les vieux continuent à mourir. Les pompiers devraient avoir des lances d’arrosage d’où fuserait la jeunesse, ils devraient s’occuper d’éteindre la vieillesse. Firefighters should fight against fire, the element of Heraclitus. Instead of that, they fight against time. A fanciful fight. To fight against fire, they use its greatest enemy, water. But to fight against time, they only have a stretcher, a tensiometer and an oxygen bottle. And of course, old people keep on dying. Firemen should have fire hose that sprayed youth; they should be busy putting out old age.

What a sight it would be.

The novel is set in a rural area and the characters’ vision of the world is deeply rooted in their surroundings, like in this quote with moth.

Les rêves volent comme les mites et pondent des œufs dans les meubles, le linge, les seuils de porte, partout. Et de ces œufs naissent d’autres rêves, pareils aux mites qui pondent des œufs partout. Dreams fly like moth and lay eggs in furniture, clothes, thresholds, everywhere. And from these eggs are born new dreams, like moths who lay eggs everywhere.

Moths are part of Rosa and Ari’s environment. Using moths to compare them to dreams is a bit daring but somehow, under Cruz’s pen, it works. For the anecdote: in French, a moth is a mite. When I typed this quote, Word autocorrect “thought” I had made a mistake and suggested mythe (myth) instead of mite, especially since the pronunciation of the two words is very similar in French. To Word’s computer-programed mind, dreams can fly like myths but not like moth.

Jesus-Christ Drank Beer is set in the 1980s, in the decade after the fall of the Salazar dictatorship. (1974) It was a time of change for the country but also for the Alentejo since there were agrarian reforms after democracy was established. I know this thanks to the foreword by the translator but otherwise, there’s a timelessness about this novella. The only moment I remembered that it was written in 2012 is this tiny reminder of the violence of the 2008 economic crisis in Portugal and the pressure the country got from the EU and the IFM. Antónia is supposed to be in Jerusalem and she comments that it looks a lot like the Alentejo. Professor Borja explains:

C’est méditerranéen, ça se ressemble partout, des chênes lièges, une économie déplorable et des oliviers et des fromages de brebis et de chèvre. Dieu savait ce qui était bon et a voulu s’incarner dans un lieu où le travail, l’esclavage, les finances, tout ça, étaient méprisés. Dieu fait tout au mieux et jamais il n’aurait voulu être allemand. It’s Mediterranean. It looks the same everywhere, cork oaks, a poor economy, olive trees, goat cheese and sheep’s cheese. God knew what was good and wanted to be incarnate in a place where work, slavery, finance and all this were despised. God knows best and would have never wanted to be German.

Unless I missed something, this is the only allusion to today’s world.

Afonso Cruz shows the life in Alentejo, makes its landscape come alive, evokes its popular belief and way-of-life. Jesus-Christ Drank Beer is a literary beverage flavored with Maupassant’s A Life, Cather’s My Ántonia, Giono’s Regain, Papadiamantis’s Murderess or Ramuz’s Aline.

Highly recommended. I’ll leave you with a last quote, one I particularly love because it tells why I’ll never do Botox or plastic surgery for the sake of looking young.

Les souvenirs sont les cendres des mots, ils sont plus lourds que les pensées et finissent par se laisser choir au fond du corps, cendrier tête la première. Il ne faut pas les chercher dans les têtes blanchies, mais dans les corps. La mémoire s’enracine dans les os, les rides, la peau. Si un vieux écarte les rides que le temps creuse dans les peaux les plus âgées, dedans il y a des tas d’histoires, il suffit de regarder le corps muet et de lire les lignes qu’il a dessinées au fil des jours et des heures. Ce sont des histoires sans paroles, c’est pourquoi l’on a tendance à les négliger. Memories are words’ ashes. They are heavier than thoughts and end up falling down to the bottom of our body, ashtray head-first. Don’t look for them in white-haired heads but in bodies. Memory takes roots in bones, in wrinkles and in our skin. If an old person opens the wrinkles that Time has carved in the oldest skins, you’ll see lots of story there. Just look at their mute bodies and read the lines Time has drawn day after day, hour after hour. These are wordless stories and this is why we tend to neglect them.

I’ll add this as a contribution to Marina Sofia’s Reading the EU project for Portugal. I want to make this book knows.

Thirteen Ways of Looking by Colum McCann

August 23, 2017 13 comments

Thirteen Ways of Looking by Columm McCann (2015) French title: Treize façons de voir. Translated by Jean-Luc Piningre.

I am slightly late with this billet as Thirteen Ways of Looking by Colum McCann was my Book Club read for…June. I definitely don’t manage the BTW (Billets To Write) pile according to the FIFO method. Thirteen Ways of Looking is made of four stories, the eponymous novella and three short-stories. (What Time Is It Now, Where You Are?, Sh’khol and Treaty)

Let’s start with the novella. The main character is an eighty-two-year-old retired judge from Brooklyn. He’s a widower and he needs a caregiver, Sally because his body now betrays him. His days are made of little rituals and it soon becomes clear that he’s going to die from a violent death. We are in his head, following his musings about his late wife, his quotidian, his career as a judge and all the little humiliations that his failing body imposes on him. I enjoyed that part very much, it reminded me of the depiction of old age in Exit Ghost by Philip Roth.

Our body ages quicker than our mind and we often need reminders of our actual age because, inside, we never feel as old as what our ID says. For our protagonist, the mirror seems to lie and reflect a stranger instead of him

He caught a glimpse in the mirror the other day, and how in tarnation did I acquire the face of my father’s father? The years don’t so much arrive, they gatecrash, they breeze through the door and leave their devastation, all the empty crockery, the broken veins, sunken eye pools, aching gums, but who is he to complain, he’s had plenty of years to get used to it, he was hardly a handsome Harry in the first place, and anyway he got the girl, he bowled her over, he won her heart, snagged her, yes, I was born in the middle of my first great love.

He feels humiliated to need diapers, handlebars and various reminder that his body doesn’t obey to him anymore. And he muses

And why is it that the mind can do anything it wants, yet the body won’t follow? What a wonderful thing it would be to live as a brain for a little while. To be perched in a jar and see it all from there.

A wonderful concept for times when our body takes precedence over everything because it aches or we are sick. He hasn’t lost his sense of humor but it’s hard for him to be old. I would have been happy with following his train of thoughts and revisit his life with him. I was not really interested in the events around his death. He was interesting enough on his own, without the added drama. His quirky mind was enough for me.

All war, any war, the vast human stupidity, Israel, Ireland, Iran, Iraq, all the I’s come to think of it, although at least in Iceland they got it right. Odd that. You never hear a peek of war from Iceland at all, but then again who’d want to be firing bullets over a piece of frozen tundra?

Indeed, who’d want that? Come to think of it, if said tundra has oil below, all bets are off.

The three short stories are very different from one another.

What Time Is It Now, Where You Are? is the story of a novelist who committed to write a short story for Christmas and inspiration deserts him. The story shows the writer turning ideas in his head until he settles on the character of a female soldier who phones her family for Christmas. We follow his creative process and here we have another story about writing. Someday, some writer will be original and decide to write about the technicity and angst of something else. Let’s say bookkeeping. That would be a change.

Sh’khol is set in Ireland. A mother lives with her mute adolescent son in a cottage by the ocean. It’s Christmas, and she got him a wet suit for he loves to swim. She wakes up to find that both he and the wet suit are gone. The story describes the sheer terror of a mother who might lose her only son. This one was difficult to read because as a parent, you can relate and feel in your bones the horrible moments this woman is living.

The one I preferred is Treaty. Beverly is an aging nun. She lives in America now and she struggles to fit in with the other nuns. Beverly –she is never called Sister Beverly, which is a telling detail—smokes and is considered as a rebel. One day, she watches television and sees a man from her past on the screen. We learn that Beverly used to work in South America and had been kidnapped by rebels. She was badly abused, beaten up and raped for months when she was held captive in the jungle. Now the man who used to torture her is on TV because he’s the main negotiator of a peace treaty on behalf of his country. The horrors of her past come back to her but also the difficulty she had to keep on living after she was freed. McCann describes her inner struggles masterfully.

She struggled for so many years with absolution, the depth of her vows, poverty, chastity, obedience. Working with doctors, experts, theologians to unravel what had happened. Every day she went to the chapel to beseech and pray. Hundreds of hours trying to get to the core of it, understand it, pick it apart. Forgiveness for herself first, they told her. In order, then, to forgive him. Without hubris, without false charity. Therapy sessions, physical exams, spiritual direction, prayer. The bembrace of Christ’s agony. The abandonment at the hour. Opening herself to compassion. Trying to put it behind her with the mercy of time. The days slipping by. Small rooms. Long hours. The curtains opening and closing. The disappearance of light. The blackened mirrors. The days spent weeping. The guilt. She sheared her hair. Swept the rosary beads off the bedside table. Took baths fully clothed. No burning bush, no pillar of light. More a pail of acid into which she wanted to dissolve.

We assume that she was better equipped than most to move on but even as a nun and a very pious person, forgiveness is not easy to find. Before being a nun, she’s human and her weakness makes her an engaging character.

Sometimes, writing a billet long after reading a book is a good way to know how much stayed with you. So, verdict for Thirteen Ways of Looking? I remember the novella quite well. Beverly stayed with me but I had absolutely no memories of the two other stories, even the terrifying one with the Irish mother and her missing son.

Although I was impressed by McCann’s impeccable style, I didn’t get on with the stories that much. It probably doesn’t help that I had no knowledge of Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird by Wallace Stevens, a poem whose verses adorn the chapters of Thirteen Ways of Looking. Like I said, I would have been happy with the old man’s life story and a peaceful death in his bed. And Beverly made a lasting impression. If you have read and reviewed it, don’t hesitate to leave a link to your review in the comments.

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