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Australian reads: Down Under by Bill Bryson and about A Long Way From Home by Peter Carey

July 21, 2018 22 comments

Down Under by Bill Bryson (2000) / A Long Way From Home by Peter Carey (2017)

I’m flying to Australia in a few days and I have SEVEN unwritten billets about books I’ve read. I’m going to write short posts about them mostly because I don’t want to go on holiday and leave a backlog of billets behind. Work has been in the way of my writing and updating my blog.

The first book I’d like to talk about is Down Under. Travels in a Sunburnt Country by Bill Bryson. I have read it in French and since “Down Under” is a bit tricky to translate, it’s become “Nos voisins du dessous”. Bill Bryson tells us all about a road trip he made in Australia in 2000. I enjoyed the tone of his book and its content. It’s a good mix of personal experience and everyday life during his roadtrip, fun facts about Australia but also serious historical information and informative descriptions of nature, and especially the fauna.

It’s told with a healthy sense of humour, by someone who comes from Iowa, has lived in Great Britain and loves Australia. When he makes fun of Australians, it’s always with affection.

Here’s a sample of his easy-going prose, a story-telling tone that catches the reader’s attention.

Australia is the world’s sixth largest country and its largest island. It is the only island that is also a continent, and the only continent that is also a country. It was the first continent conquered by sea, and the last. It is the only nation that began as a prison.

It is the home of the largest living thing on earth, the Great Barrier Reef, and of the most famous and striking monolith, Ayers Rock (or Uluru to use its now official, more respectful Aboriginal name) It has more things that will kill you than anywhere else. Of the world’s ten most poisonous snakes, all are Australian. Five of its creatures – the funnel-web spider, box jellyfish, blue-ringed octopus, paralysis tick and stonesfish – are the most lethal of their type in the world. This is a country where even the fluffiest of caterpillars can lay you out with a toxic nip, where seashells will not just sting you by actually sometimes go for you. Pick up an innocuous coneshell from a Queensland beach, as innocent tourists are all too wont to do, and you will discover that the little fellow inside is not just astoundingly swift and testy, but exceedingly venomous. If you are not stung or pronged to death in some unexpected manner, you may be fatally chomped by sharks or crocodiles, or carried helplessly out to sea by irresistible currents, or left to stagger to an unhappy death in the baking outback. It’s a tough place.”

Well, our plane tickets are nonrefundable, so I guess we’ll just have to be prudent, eh?

I read his book partly at home and partly during a work trip while waiting at the airport. My constant giggling forced me to read passages to my colleagues or they would have thought I was nuts.

His trip includes a stay in Sydney, a visit to Camberra, Melbourne, some time in Queensland and some time in the Northern Territory. It was a pleasure to follow him, learn about the places he was visiting, discover mundane everyday life details and learn about the history of Australia.

Bill Bryson points out how little we hear about Australia in our respective countries. What is true for him in America is also true for me in France.

And this came back as a boomerang when I tried to read A Long Way From Home by Peter Carey. I had read an enthusiastic review by Lisa (see here) and since I love to read books about road trips, I thought it could be a good place to start with Carey.

I began reading it full of expectations and was soon stuck with it. I knew the words I was reading but didn’t understand what I was reading. I was totally missing the subtext. I was seriously rethinking my English abilities (and Australian English can be challenging) when I read Kim’s review. (see here)

She says “I love Carey’s prose, his long, descriptive sentences and quirky turns of phrase, the Australianness (is that a word?) of it all and his ability to capture period detail so extraordinarily well.”

And it was like a lightbulb! The Australianness that had enhanced the experience for Lisa and Kim totally lost me. See here:

The sonny was named Titch although he was sometimes Zac which was what they called a sixpence and a zac was therefore half a shilling or half a bob, which was, of course, his father’s name.

I don’t think you can expect a French reader to understand that kind of sentence. I also had to google Holden because I didn’t know what it was and there were lots of random details like this that left me dumbfounded.

It was indeed a long way from my home and I gave up. Maybe I’ll try it again after spending time in Australia… That’ll be a test: did I catch enough Australianness to understand Peter Carey?

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.

Spanish Lit Month: One-Way Journey by Carlos Salem

August 6, 2017 11 comments

One Way Journey by Carlos Salem 2007 (Original Spanish title : Camino de ida). French title: Aller simple. Translated by Danielle Schramm.

Dorita mourut pendant sa sieste, pour achever de me gâcher mes vacances. J’en étais sûr. J’avais passé vingt de nos vingt-deux années de mariage à lui inventer des morts fantasmatiques. Et quand enfin cela arriva, ce ne fut aucune de celles que j’avais imaginées. Mettant de côté les attentats les plus divers, les poisons et les piranhas dans la baignoire, qui étaient surtout des exercices innocents de réconfort, j’avais toujours su qu’elle mourrait avant moi et dans un lit. Mais je ne pensais pas que ce serait comme cela dans une ville inconnue, dans un hôtel qui mentait d’au moins une étoile, et de façon si soudaine. Dorita died during her nap to finish off ruining my holiday. I knew it. I had spent twenty out of our twenty-two years of marriage inventing her fantastical deaths. And when it finally happened, it was none of the deaths I had imagined. Setting aside various attacks, poisons and piranhas in the bathtub, which were only innocent outlets, I had always known she’d die before me and in a bed. But I never thought it would be in a strange town, in a hotel that lied upon at least one star and that it would be so sudden.

As you can read from this opening quote, a Spanish lady, Dorita Rincón suddenly died in her hotel room in Marrakech (Morocco) while she’s on vacation with her husband Octavio. And Octavio is not sorry that his wife passed away. His first reaction to her death is relief and a refreshing sense of freedom because she controlled his every move. However, he’s afraid to be accused of murder. This explains why, instead of calling the authorities and taking care of the formalities, he procrastinates and decides to have a drink and enjoy his newfound freedom.

He stumbles upon an Argentinean con artist, Raúl Soldati. Soldati is in Marocco for business. He tried to sell ice-cream to Bedouins but his business venture went bankrupt because he couldn’t pinpoint where to set up his ice-cream truck, with Bedouins being nomadic and all. Now, he’s unattached and he takes Octavio around town, crashing parties and posing them as rich guys. At some point, they steal money and documents from a Bolivian official to pay their way. They will later realize that they stole forged dollar bills.

Octavio and Soldati get to know each other and wallflower Octavio explains his predicament to flambloyant Soldati. With the ice-cream business, Soldati owns a refrigerated truck and they decide to go back to the hotel to take Dorita’s body and bring her back home to Barcelona. Problem: when they arrive at the hotel, Dorita’s body is gone and they have the Bolivian officials chasing after them.

Soldati and Octavio barely make it out of the hotel, take Octavio’s car and leave Marrakech to escape their attackers. They start driving through the Atlas. On the way, they meet a man who says he’s Carlos Gardel, the famous Argentinean tango singer.

Gardel wants to go to Spain with them, in order to kill Juglio Iglesias. Soldati, an amateur tango singer who put Gardel on the logo of his ice-cream business, is in awe. Octavio doesn’t know what to think, because Gardel died in a plane crash in 1935. How can he be alive and living in Marocco? Is he the real Gardel or a crazy fan who pretends to be him? Octavio makes a decision:

J’étais persuadé que c’était bien lui, pour aussi insensé que cela paraisse, que c’était bien Carlos Gardel qui renaissait de l’oubli pour tuer Julio Iglesias coupable du crime impardonnable d’avoir enregistré un disque de tangos.

I was sure it was him, even if it was insane. I thought he was really Carlos Gardel, somehow coming back to kill Julio Iglesias who was guilty of recording an album of tango songs.

You may think that he’s so upside-down that he decides for suspension of belief. The three of them embark on a hilarious road trip, full of twists and turns and of colorful encounters. It’s funny as a Monthy Python film and as surreal as Arizona Dream.

Apart from the zany developments and spicy dialogues, this trip soon becomes an initiatory journey for Octavio. They go from funny adventures to chases, meeting with incredible people along the way. Octavio reacquaints himself with his true self. Without Dorita’s imposing figure, he reflects on his life, on what he wanted to be as a child.

Cette nuit-là, je dormis dans ma voiture, réchauffé par la couverture et le whisky que m’avait donnés Soldati. J’avais le .38 dans la main et, sur le siège d’à côté, mon enfance oubliée me tenait compagnie. Je serais pianiste, pompier, pirate, explorateur. La seule chose qu’ils me laissèrent faire fut le piano. Et encore. Il n’y avait pas d’argent en trop à la maison, mais mon père rêvait pour moi de quelque chose de mieux qu’une usine d’après-guerre pour charnego.

(1) un charnego est un Espagnol travaillant en Catalogne. 

That night, I slept in my car, warmed by the blanket and the whisky Soldati had given me. I had the .38 in my hand, and on the passenger’s seat, my childhood was riding shotgun and keeping me company. I would be a piano player, a fireman, a pirat, an explorer. The only thing they let me try was the piano. Barely. There wasn’t much extra-money at home but my father dreamed of something more for me than a post-war factory for charnegos (1).  

(1) a charnego is a Castillan worker in Catalonia.

The more he’s away from Dorita and the constraints of his old life, the better he feels. He adjusts to his crazy trip, chooses to trust Soldati and Gardel, remains open to new people. He wakes up from a sleepy and policed life. Salem’s book is entitled One-Way Journey because Octavio is told that life is a one-way journey. There’s no going back, only going further and this trip is the same. Octavio is slowly learning that it’s time for him to enjoy the ride.

Besides Octavio’s coming-to-life, there are also thoughts about tango and fame. Carlos Gardel died when his career was at its peak. He never sank into oblivion. He remained young and famous in the mind of the Argentinean people. Carlos Salem was born in Buenos-Aires in 1959 and has lived in Spain since 1988. He knows both countries and Gardel belongs to his DNA as an Argentinean. In the book, Gardel is nostalgic of Argentina. He misses the food and specific customs of his country. One-Way Journey is also a melancholic tale about exile, self-imposed or not.

As you must have guessed by now, I loved One-Way Journey. It’s a fun read, with a fast-paced story and an incredible style. Salem has an excellent sense of humor, a knack for burlesque and his own way with words. I love his style, sharp and imaginative. He can pull off a vivid description in a few words:

Il avait une moustache fine, la peau sombre, et essayait de rentrer un ventre qui était en train de gagner subrepticement la bataille. He sported a thin moustache, had a dark skin and was trying to pull in a stomach which was surreptitiously winning the battle.

Can you picture this man? I can see him perfectly, physical appearance and misplaced pride in one sentence.

I’m sorry to report that One-Way Journey is not available in English. Definitely a Translation Tragedy. Someone needs to publish Salem in English, really. I vote for Duane Swierczynski’s publisher. There’s something in common between Octavio’s crazy trip and Charlie Hardie’s insane adventures. I dream of a panel at Quais du Polar where these two were in the same room. For readers who can read in Spanish, the original title is Camino de ida. Apparently, it’s only been translated into French, so francophone readers can get on their knees and thank the publisher Actes Sud for taking a chance on Carlos Salem and bringing his books to our attention.

One Way Journey by Carlos Salem is my second contribution to Spanish & Portuguese Lit Month, hosted by Stu and Richard.

PS: I can’t resist this last quote for the road.

Jorge Luis me regardait comme regardent les chats, sans compromettre leur sagesse avec nos folies. Jorge Luis [a cat] looked at me the way cats look at us, without compromising their wisdom with our follies.

The Snuff-It Princess by Kââ – Crime fiction

June 25, 2017 11 comments

The Snuff-it Princess by Kââ (1984) Original French title: La princess de Crève. Not available in English.

I bought La princesse de Crève by Kââ at Quais du Polar. I was drawn to the great cover and the play-on-word in the title. Indeed, La princesse de Crève is a reference to the famous novel La princesse de Clèves by Madame de Lafayette (1678) The best translation I can come with is The Snuff-it Princess, since the verb crever in this context is a slang word for to die.

My copy of La princesse de Crève is a new edition of Kââ’s 1984 crime fiction novel or polar. I’d never heard of Kââ as a writer. According to Wikipedia, it’s the pen name of Pascal Marignac who also wrote under the names of Corsélien and Béhémoth. Kââ is a reference to the python’s name in The Jungle Book.

La princesse the Crève is a roadtrip/chase classic crime fiction. It’s told at the first person by an unnamed narrator. From the context, we can guess he’s a white man in his late thirties or early forties. He’s literate, amateur of good wines and connoisseur of fire arms. He’s a criminal with principles who has the right connections in organized crime circles. As we say in French, he’s not an altar boy but still acts according to his own moral code.

When the book opens, our narrator is sitting at a terrace, on a look-out. Mr de Warny is going to cross the border between France and Switzerland with 150 000 francs hidden in the trunk. And our narrator and his accomplice have decided to block De Warny’s road and steal the cash before he gets to Switzerland. Everything goes according to plan and they manage to pinch the money right under Roman Markos’s nose, the man behind the money laundering business.

Our narrator decides to let things cool off and chooses to hide in Bruges, Belgium. He’s having dinner at a restaurant when he meets Michelle. She’s on her own. She’s the archetype of the femme fatale, a stunning blonde with smoldering eyes. She captures his attention, he chats her up only to realize that she has hitmen after her. After putting the pieces of the jigsaw together, he understands that Markos’s men are after her. He wonders if it has anything to do with him stealing the money near Switzerland. He decides to help her escape her killers, knowing his life is at stake since he took the gangster’s money.

Who is Michelle and why does she have this string of killers chasing after her? I won’t tell more about the plot. Suffice to say that La princesse de Crève is a road trip from Belgium to the South of France and even Italy. The death toll keeps increasing along the way as more hitmen pop on their road. Michelle and the narrator are constantly on the run and escaping a painful death.

I can’t say I loved La princesse de Crève. It’s well-written but there were too many corpses, too many gun fights and too many precise references to firearms I know nothing about. The constant chase was tiring in the end. There was too much action and not enough insight on the characters’ psychology. I felt like I didn’t belong to the right gender to enjoy it. All this admiration for weapons was too much testosterone for my tastes. It’s as if the genre needed landmarks to meet virility requirements. And yet, as chauvinistic as this description sounds, it’s not. Women have a good place in the novel, Michelle is not a wallflower, she has spunk. And two of the hitmen are lesbians, quite daring for 1984.

You can’t forget that La princesse de Crève was written in the 1980s. Of course, there are these constant stops at cafés to get a phone, the models of the cars used during this roadtrip/chase are well-known cars from this decade. They smoke all the time and everywhere. They pay in francs and it’s strange now that we’re used to euros.

What felt truly dated is this narrator without a past or a future, as if he were born for this moment, this plot. The reader doesn’t know much about him, he’s a bit of a hologram. We only see him in action and we draw a portrait in our head. He’s literate and never vulgar. He enjoys female company and casual sex but doesn’t objectify women. He’s a little romantic and while he never has qualms about shooting an enemy, torture is not his MO. Recent crime fiction doesn’t work that way anymore. Authors create series and the subplot about the main character’s private life is as important as the crime plot. We are used to this now and I missed it. Despite a clever writing, La princesse de Crève lacked substance on the characters developments.

Perhaps it just didn’t work for me and I shouldn’t have expected more than easy entertainment from this book.

Long is the road

August 15, 2013 10 comments

18% Gray by Zachary Karabashliev. 2008. French title: 18% gris.

 “Listen my friend. This isn’t a script for a thriller. This is a story about…” I try to calm down and sound convincing. “Actually, this is not a story about drugs. This is a story about a guy who loses his talent…”

“His…what?” Elijah’s eyes narrow, puzzled.

“And loses his faith,” I keep going.

“Ay, ay, ay.” He shakes his head mockingly.

“…loses his appetite for life…”

“Existentialism?” Pure disgust.

“…loses his love…”

“So you’re writing a love story?” Sarcasm, plain sarcasm.

“…himself…”

“And he finds a bag of ganja? Genius!” Elijah slams the table with his fist.

“But one night, one crazy night, as if in a dream, he stumbles upon a bag of marijuana”.

Stella has been gone for ten days and Zach is lost. He’s in a ain’t-no-sunshine-when-she’s-gone kind of mood when he tries to lose himself in booze in Tijuana. This is where he accidentally comes in possession of a bag of marijuana. He decides to leave California behind, drive through the country and sell the weed in New-York. That’s the starting point of the book.

As he drives away from California, Zack follows three paths. The first one is in the present. The second path is the chronological story of his life with Stella. The third one is a journey down memory lane, snippets of conversations with Stella. The three paths are visible in the form of the novel. The present is written in normal script and lay out. His life with Stella is in italic. The snippets are in low-case letters, on the right side of the page, like this:

-look at me

-i’m thirsty

-look at the camera

-i’m cold

-c’mon, please

-i need coffee…

-we’re almost done

-i want to get dressed already…

-this is the last roll of film and i swear we’re done

-the last one?

-the very last one.

The present is a road trip between San Diego and New-York. Zack and Stella are immigrants from Bulgaria. They came to America as students, never left but their whole set of values was formed in their home country. 18% Gray was translated from the Bulgarian and the main character has the same name as the writer. I assume the author poured part of his experience into the book. The road trip is an ode to the American myth. Zack is a photographer who gave up on photography when he couldn’t find a job in his field. He buys a camera for this trip and starts taking pictures again. 18% gray is a technical term for photographers, the equivalent of a diapason for musicians.

I now realise that my American West was not a geographical place, but a secret territory in my dreams. Perhaps everybody has their own Wild West. From a very young age, I knew with certainty that one day I would live in mine. I’d caress the yellow prairie grass and the wind would kiss my face. When did I lose all that? How did I manage to desecrate my West by replacing it with the plastic version of what I’ve been living in for the last few years of my life?

This road trip confronts the real America to his dream America. Despite all the years he’s lived there, he still looks at America with the starry eyes of a European. And yet, what he describes corresponds to the idea I have of rural America. Motels. Poverty. Wilderness. Dinners. Strange characters. People stuck in small towns. Ghost towns abandoned when business went somewhere else; I’ve never seen a ghost town in Europe. All sort of weird encounters happen on this trip and Zack copes with everything that falls down on him. He also takes the opportunity to visit friends scattered on the way. As the book progressed I felt closer and closer to Zack, probably because I share part of his European dream of America and part of his perpetual puzzlement at some American habits:

I try to find a radio station that doesn’t irritate me. I know that every ten or fifteen minutes I’ll have to deal with the next attack of ads—something I have never learned to ignore after all these years in America. Most likely I never will. The locals handle this as if they have an implanted chip that switches their attention on and off during commercial breaks. Maybe the mechanism is formed in the first early years of television watching. I’m missing the “first seven” in this respect. I grew up somewhere else, with a different kind of television.

Karabashliev_grisAfter saying this, he stops to buy CDs and listen to his own free-of-ads music. When we visited California, we did the same. The radio was unbearable and we bought CDs. The TV was unbearable as well. It’s not music or a show with ads, it’s ads with music or shows. We wanted to watch TV and listen to the radio, you learn about a country that way, but we couldn’t. Zack points out the same things that attract our attention as being different from Europe: the huge size of everything, the greasy food everywhere, the preachers on TV or on the radio, the religious stickers on cars, the trailers or the mail boxes in the middle of nowhere.

I also felt close to Zack when he relates how he abandoned his dreams and how it probably cost him his relationship with Stella. Zack drives and thinks about Stella. We learn how they met in Bulgaria and their relationship was based upon a strong connection. When he was a student, Zack wanted to be a rock star but failed, the band disintegrated as its members started to grow up. He learnt photography in Ohio, after they moved to America and it became his passion. Stella’s passion was painting. She had always wanted to paint. When they moved to California, they couldn’t find a job, Zack started to work for a pharmaceutical company and Stella gave lessons. He made good money and lost himself in the process. Stella stuck to painting.

I loved this book, the three paths and lay-outs weren’t artificial. I loved the story, the encounters on the way, the honesty in Zack’s description of his failed marriage. I loved the voice behind the characters of this novel and I had wonderful hours reading it. This is a book I owe to Guy (again), so Guy, a thousand thanks for this. You can read his review here.

PS: The title of this post is a song by French singer Jean-Jacques Goldman. The lyrics talk about the American dream of each immigrant knocking on America’s door, the dream of success and the disappointment that often follow. You can read the lyrics here.

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