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A Certain M. Piekielny by François-Henri Désérable

February 4, 2018 8 comments

Un certain M. Piekielny by François-Henri Désérable. (2017) Not available in English.

Romain Gary is my favorite writer and this is no breaking news for regular readers of this blog. I won’t write about his biography and literary career as I would repeat myself. For newcomers, there’s my Reading Romain Gary page and Wikipedia and there’s this extraordinary article from The New Yorker.

In France, Romain Gary is a beloved writer. One we sometimes study in class. One whose books are made into plays or into graphic novels or into special illustrated editions. One whose books make full display tables in bookshops.

François-Henri Désérable is a young writer born in 1987, seven years after Gary’s death. He used to play professional hockey, which makes him stand out here in France. The hockey league is not as prestigious as the NHL. Here, hockey is an unusual sport for children to play. I’m not even sure you can watch games on TV when it’s not the Olympic games time.

So François-Henri Désérable loves hockey and unsurprisingly, one of his friends wanted to have his stag party in Minsk, Belorussia during a hockey tournament. Four of them were going but there were only three plane tickets left for a direct flight to Minsk. Désérable decided to take a flight to Vilnius, Lithuania and to catch a train to Minsk from there. The Gary fan is already swooning: what? A trip to Vilnius, formerly called Wilno, where Gary spent his childhood? Lucky him.

Désérable got robbed in Vilnius and didn’t have any money or proper identity papers to continue his travels. He stayed in Vilnius, explored Gary’s old neighborhood and thought about a passage in Promise at Dawn. Gary mentions that his mother kept telling their neighbors that he’d be famous one day. None took her seriously but M. Piekielny. Gary explains in his autobiographical-fictional novel that this man once took him apart and asked him to tell these great people he would meet that at number 16 of Grande-Pohulanka, in Wilno used to live M. Piekielny. Gary reports that he kept his promise. Désérable decides to investigate this M. Piekielny and takes us with him as he tries to find out if that man really existed and what happened to him.

This simple idea turned into a triple trip.

It became a historical research because Gary was Jewish and used to live in the Jewish neighborhood of Wilno. And the ghetto was destroyed by the Nazis during the Summer 1941. Désérable compares Wilno’s Jewish neighborhood to Pompeii.

Je commençais à comprendre qu’il n’y avait pas seulement le temps, mais aussi l’espace qui jouait contre moi. La Jérusalem de Lituanie avait été à sa façon ensevelie sous les cendres, mais elle avait eu la guerre pour Vésuve, et comme nuée ardente l’Allemagne nazie puis l’Union soviétique. Et si l’on voulait connaitre son apparence – ou tout du moins s’en faire une idée – avant l’éruption de l’été 1941, on était réduit à la reconstituer mentalement, comme ces temples romains dans Pompéi dont on ne peut qu’imaginer la splendeur, recomposant en esprit architraves, frises et corniches à partir des vestiges de quelques colonnes amputées des deux tiers. I was starting to understand that not only time was against me but so was space. The Jerusalem of Lithuania had been buried in ashes in its own way. Its Vesuvius had been the war and its glowing clouds had been Nazi Germany followed by the Soviet Union. If one wanted to know its appearance before the eruption of the Summer 1941 – or more exactly to make up a picture of it– one was doomed to piece it together in his head, like these temples in Pompeii whose splendor can only be imagined by reconstructing in your mind all their architraves, friezes and moldings from the vestiges of a few columns amputated by two thirds.  

The inhabitants were killed and their lives, their neighborhood disappeared. Wilno was erased and the contemporary Vilnius has only a few traces of its once vivid Jewish heritage. This part of the book is poignant as Désérable digs into archives and reminds us how the entire part of a country’s culture was annihilated.

from Wikipedia

The historical journey is coupled with a literary one. It turns out that Vilnius has a statue of Gary as a child in the street he used to live in. They even have a Romain Gary club who helped Désérable in his quest. His investigation leads him into digging into Gary’s biography. Promise at Dawn is not entirely reliable, so nothing says that the information about M. Piekielny is true. Did he really exist? Gary was a great inventor, an illusionist. Everything has the appearance of the truth, but he twisted it way he saw it fit. Désérable knows it but decides to play around it. Looking for M. Piekielny is an opportunity to immerse himself in Gary’s life, to reread his books and bios about him.

And all along, it’s also a personal journey for Désérable as a writer and as a man. He loves Romain Gary. He admires his writing, but he also feels a personal connection to him. Like Gary, François-Henri Désérable doesn’t have the background of the average Frenchman of his age. He spent a year playing hockey in Minnesota as a teenager before coming back to finish his high school years in Amiens. Spending a year in the USA and playing such an exotic sport make him already stand out.

He also mentions some parallels about their mothers. Like Mina, Gary’s mother, Désérable’s mother also had great things in mind for her son. He had to study law and contrary to his father, she was not so fond of the hockey career. She says that he has a name that sounds like a writer’s name, even to my ears. It’s elegant, the François-Henri sounding old erudite France, like the François-René in Chateaubriand’s name. Désérable is a vowel from désirable. Like Mina, his mother expects him to be successful to live vicariously through him and feel successful in raising him.

That’s what he says. But who knows if this autobiographical part of the novel is totally true. He may be playing with details like his mentor.

Un certain M. Piekielny is an amazing novel right in the continuity of Gary’s work. It’s witty, well-written and it has the flavor of Promise at Dawn. It brings back Gary’s past to life and the horror of the extermination of Jews, not through the horrors of the camps but through the horrors of making a whole civilization and way-of-life disappear. It shows WWII in another angle, something Gary did in his work. How does Humanity survive to such a level of hatred and self-destruction? What did it mean at human level, to be part of that time?

It’s also a wonderful trip through Gary’s multiple lives and literary career. And last but not least, it was a sort of coming-of-age novel for Désérable himself. It’s written in a tone that Gary would have approved of but the substance is a lot like Nothing Holds Back the Night by Delphine de Vigan.

Un certain M. Piekielny was nominated for the Prix Goncourt in 2017. I wish it had won, for François-Henri Désérable himself and his knack at writing a funny, multi-layered book but also for Romain Gary who would have vicariously won a third Goncourt. I imagine him grinning mischievously from beyond the grave, happy to get even with the literary intelligentsia.

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

February 3, 2018 11 comments

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver (2009) French title: Un autre monde. Translated by Martine Aubert.

A quick post about my abandoning The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver. I think I gave it a read shot, I waited until page 215 to let it go. It’s 664 pages long and I couldn’t see myself reading the four hundred and something pages left.

I’m disappointed because I usually enjoy Kingsolver’s books.

This one is the story/journals of Harrison William Shepherd, son of a Mexican mother and an American father. When the book opens, his mother has just left her American husband to follow her Mexican lover to his property on Isla Pixol, Mexico. We’re in 1929 and Harry is 14.

The style is a mix of chapters told by an omniscient narrator, some are made of Harry’s journals sandwiched between chapters by his translator. We understand that Harry is dead, that he became a famous writer, that his translator gathered his journals to make this book.

After a few Mexican years, Harry is sent back to his father in America. Now feeling in a parental mood, he enrolls Harry in a private military school in Washinfton DC. We get to read Harry’s journal: normal boy stuff and news from the outside with riots due to the Great Depression. W’ere in 1930/1931, during the Hoover presidency.

Then it’s back to Mexico with his flighty mother who’s always looking for a man to support her. Harry is hired as a member of Diego Rivera’s domesticity. Trostsky is hidden at the Rivera’s house…and that’s where I dropped out of the story.

I couldn’t find interest in Harry’s life or in the real-life events the book mentions. The only things that interested me were the mentions about Mexican cuisine and the dishes Harry learns to cook. That’s pretty thin and not enough to trudge to the end page.

I was determined to read it all since it’s our Book Club choice for January but really, I was looking at my TBR with longing, eager to pick something else and that’s the sure sign that it’s time to give up and move on. Life is short, there’s never enough reading time. I can’t afford to waste it.

I am now in company of Dave Robicheaux, the gritty New Orleans cop imagined by James Lee Burke. A treat.

Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead by Sara Gran

January 6, 2018 6 comments

Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead by Sara Gran (2011). French title: La cité des morts. Translated by Claire Breton.

The City of the Dead by Sara Gran is the first instalment of her crime fiction series featuring her female PI heroin, Claire DeWitt. When the book opens, we’re in 2007, Claire is in California and Leon calls her to ask to come to New Orleans and investigate the disappearance of his uncle, Vic Willing. He vanished during the flood due to the floodwall failure around New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina hit the region. Everybody assumes that Vic drowned and that his corpse never reappeared. His nephew is not at ease with this version and wants to dig further.

Claire accepts the job and reluctantly comes back to a city she left ten years before. She used to live in New Orleans and her mentor Constance was training her to become a PI. Claire grew up in a decrepit townhouse in Brooklyn. She fell into mystery solving at a young age when she and her girlfriends Tracy and Kelly found a book called Détection by Jacques Silette. It’s an essay written by a French PI who discusses investigating and solving mysteries. This book is closer to a sort of Tao Te Ching of crime fiction than to a basic Crime Solving 101. It became Claire’s bible. And Constance had been tutored by Jacques Silette himself. That’s Claire’s professional foundations.

Claire accepts the case, flies back to New Orleans to find out what happened to Vic Willing and to face her personal demons. Coming back to New Orleans, a city she left after Constance’s violent death, is painful to Claire. And she comes back to a city traumatized and destroyed by Hurricane Katrina and its consequences.

Her investigation will lead her in various areas of the city. She will take us to neighborhoods literally destroyed and full of buildings in ruins. She will show us the incredible level of criminality of New Orleans, its poverty but also its strong culture and traditions. Claire takes us to what looks like a Third World country. Sara Gran used to live in New Orleans. She depicts a city with no decent public services and gangrened by corruption. Institutions don’t work together, the police and the judicial system can’t coordinate their efforts and a lot of crimes remain unpunished. Killings are common occurrences. Arm and drug trafficking are almost in the open. Eighteen months after Katrina’s passage, the reconstruction of the city has barely started in some areas and people are in as bad a shape as the buildings in ruin. Some lost everything and lived through terrible times. We all saw on TV how poorly the US government handled this major catastrophe at the time. Hurricane Katrina revealed to the world a rich country that had tons of money for war but none to rescue its poorest citizen.

For this reader, this aspect of The City of the Dead was the most interesting part of the book. I was not really interested in the outcome of the investigation. And in the end, I was disappointed by the motive behind Vic Willing’s murder. I thought it was a banal device for a crime fiction writer.

And then, there’s the whole esoteric/mystic side of Claire DeWitt. I was bored by the unintelligible quotes from the fictional Détection. Silette’s book sounds like ominous prophecies by Nostradamus written by a fortune cookie author mated with French intellectualism of the 1970s. At least that how it looked to me and it totally put me off. See what I mean:

“Happiness is the temporary result of denying the knowledge one already has,” Silette wrote. “Once one knows what one knows—once one knows the solution to his mysteries—happiness is besides the point. But in rare cases, something much better can bloom.”

I really don’t see the attraction or the need for this pseudo-intellectual thread. I’d be very happy to read other readers’ thoughts about this.

Last but not least, the style. *Sigh* Clearly, Chandler ruined me. I’m way too picky and too demanding when it comes to crime fiction. I thought that Gran’s style was good but not exceptional. I read the French translation and while it’s well done for today’s French readers, I wonder if it will keep. The translator chose to use very contemporary slang to translate the voices of New Orleans’s criminals and outcast. Expressions like truc de ouf or verbs like kiffer may sound outdated in a decade. The translation will sound as weird as the one of Rage in Harlem by Chester Himes. Slang is difficult to translate and it’s like fashion, its trends don’t last.

In the end, I didn’t like The City of the Dead very much, mostly because of the weird Silette cult. No second book with Claire DeWitt is in my future.

Something must be wrong with me because this book was in the following literary prizes: Macavity Award for Best Mystery Novel (2012), Hammett Prize Nominee (2011), Shamus Award Nominee for Best First PI Novel (2012), Deutscher Krimi Preis for 1. Platz International (2013), Meilleur polar des lecteurs de Points (2016)

If you’ve read it, please let me know what you thought about it.

The Monogram Murders by Sophie Hannah & Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James

November 24, 2017 19 comments

The Monogram Murders by Sophie Hannah (2014) // Death Comes to Pemberley by PD James. (2011)

I usually don’t write about two books in the same billet but this time I’ll make an exception for these two crime fiction novels that I’d qualify as fan fiction books. I’m not particularly attracted to ersatz of classics or spin offs. I received The Monogram Murders by Sophie Hannah with my subscription to Quais du Polar and I put it on the shelf, not particularly attracted to this new investigation featuring Hercule Poirot, even if it’s been published with the consent of Agatha Christie’s heirs. I got tempted by Death Comes to Pemberley because it was written by PD James and I thought there was enough sass and wits in Elizabeth Bennet to change her into a funky amateur sleuth.

How wrong I was.

The Monogram Murders by Sophie Hannah turned up to be an easy and rather pleasurable read. Hercule Poirot is hiding in a boarding house in London to make everyone believe he left the country. He wants some rest but also some familiarity and decided to play tourist in London. In his lodgings, he gets acquainted to Inspector Catchpool, a young policeman from Scotland Yard. When a peculiar triple murder is committed in the hotel Bloxham, Catchpool is overwhelmed by the investigation and Poirot offers his services. Follows a typical whodunnit plot.

Now Death Comes to Pemberley. *rolling my eyes and smacking my forehead* What was PD James thinking when she wrote this?

We’re at the eve of Pemberley’s great ball when Lydia arrives in a rush and cries that Wickham and his friend Denny disappeared in the woods and that she heard the sound of bullets. She’s hysterical and Darcy, Bingley and Colonel Fitzwilliam brave the night and the wind to go and find Wickham and his friend. When they arrive on the scene, they discover that Denny is dead and Wickham is prostrated on his friend’s body and repeats that he killed him. Now, what really happened in these dark and hunted woods? I bet you’re dying to…read something else. And you would be right.

While The Monogram Murders was pleasant read, Death Comes to Pemberley was totally ridiculous. Elizabeth Bennet must have been brainwashed on her wedding day. She lost all her spirit and her sparks to become a dull and dutiful mother and wife. Yuck. A loving doormat in admiration with her husband, that’s what she is. She has the psychological depth of a moth, Darcy sounds like a carpet, if carpets could talk. The book is peppered with unnecessary reminders of the original story, as if this could have other readers than Jane Austen’s fans.

These two books have something in common though: none of them manages to recreate the magic of the originals. They lack of warmth, they’re not realistic. The Monogram Murders doesn’t bring you back to the London of Agatha Christie’s time. And Hercule Poirot is not smug enough. I missed the slightly outdated tone of Agatha Christie’s novels, this special tone that sends you back to a time when boarding houses were common. Sophie Hannah resuscitated a passable Poirot, but you couldn’t mix him up with the original if you were reading this blindly, without knowing the writer’s name. And Death Comes to Pemberley kills more than Denny, it kills the original characters and morphs them into weak and sad puppets. Lizzie had the potential to be a fantastic sleuth, exasperating her husband by playing amateur detective and breaking out of social conventions. What a disappointment! And I will spare you the mawkish passages about her and Darcy’s marital bliss. Gag. Poor, poor Jane Austen! This is not crime fiction, it’s a crime against fiction.

The good news is your TBR is not going to grow after reading my billet. Count your blessings. We should just reread Pride and Prejudice.

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: 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.

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