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AusReadingMonth: Lexicon by Max Barry – “Words are weapons sharper than knives”

November 1, 2019 14 comments

Lexicon by Max Barry (2013) Not available in French.

Wil Parke is brutally kidnapped at Chicago airport. A mysterious team takes him to the lavatories and try to make him confess his true identity. He doesn’t know what this is all about. He’s a carpenter and his girlfriend is waiting for him at the arrivals. That’s all he knows. Things get violent quite fast and a man named Tom explains that their pursuants are “poets”, members of an organisation where leaders take the name of famous dead poets.

A mass killing happened a year before in Broken Hill, Australia. The whole population of the town was killed. Officially, it’s due to industrial leakage but the organisation knows that their agent Virginia Woolf went there with a weapon of mass destruction. She escaped and Wil is the only other survivor. He seems to be immune to the weapon. Problem 1: The weapon is still in Broken Hill and nobody can approach it without dying. Problem 2: Virginia Woolf is on the loose and she’s very dangerous. Poor Wil finds himself in the crossfire of two different factions among the poets and has to fight for his life.

Lexicon alternates chapters between the ongoing man hunt and Virginia Woolf’s story. Her name was Emily Duff. She was a sixteen-year old girl playing tricks on the streets in San Francisco when she was recruited to attend a special school near Washington DC. The school head is a poet, Charlotte Brontë. Her teachers are Lowell and Eliot. At the school, students learn the art of manipulating people’s minds. This is Emily’s epiphany:

But the truth was, she had just figured it out. Attention words. A single word wasn’t enough. Not even for a particular segment. The brain had defences, filters evolved over millions of years to protect against manipulation. The first was perception, the process of funnelling an ocean of sensory input down to a few key data packages worthy of study by the cerebral cortex. When data got by the perception filter, it received attention. And she saw new that it must be like that all the way down: There must be words to attack each filter. Attention words and then maybe desire words and logic words and urgency words and command words. This was what they were teaching her. How to craft a string of words that would disable the filters one by one, unlocking each mental tumbler until the mind’s last door swung open.

The poets master the art of “compromising” people, meaning that they take control over their minds and make them do what they want. Students learn languages, psychology and neuroscience. People are put into narrow segments, each segment reacts to certain words that make their mental walls collapse, enabling the poet to take over their mind. This is what it feels like:

Vartix velkor mannik wissick. Be still.”

Her mouth snapped closed. It happened before she realised what she was doing. The surprise was thet it felt like her decision. She really, genuinely wanted to be still. It was the words. Yeats, compromising her, she knew, but it didn’t feel like that at all. Her brain was spinning with rationalisations, reasons why she should definitely be still right new, why that was a really good move, and it was talking in her voice. She hadn’t known compromise was like this.

Frightening power, isn’t it?

What happened to Emily? Are Wil and Eliot right to be afraid of Virginia Woolf? Or should they be more concerned about Yeats, the director of the organisation? The two branches of the story converge in the end, giving the reader a whole picture of what happened. It is hard to give more details about the plot without giving away too much. This blog is spoiler free, so…

In Lexicon, Max Barry explores the power of language and how people can be manipulated. He imagines that the most lethal weapon is a word, a word so powerful that people die around it. The leaders of the organisation are poets because they are good with words. At their school, students have to learn to control their mind. They know they could be “compromised” and they know how to do it to others. They are taught to mask their feelings. Desires are unwanted, even basic ones like the desire to love and be loved. Desires are weaknesses and poets must keep their thoughts under a tight leash.

Emily is somehow resistant to it. She grew up cheating to survive and this instinct stays strong in her. Eliot never managed to tame his natural tendency to empathy. In the eyes of perfectly controlled Yeats, Eliot is weak. These two have one thing in common: they bend the rules because they don’t have the same ironclad control that the others have.

Lexicon plays with the idea of dominating people by feeding them words so well chosen that they target specific responses. Poets do what ill-intention press does, what social network can do, as the Cambridge Analytica scandal showed us. The master idea behind the organisation is that if you manage to attach someone to his adequate psychological segment, you’ll know how to get to him.

Now I have a question for English literature specialists. I’m not a good reader of poetry, not even in French, so I don’t know well Anglophone poetry either. Of course, I know about Yeats, Charlotte Brontë, Virginia Woolf, TS Eliot and other poets mentioned in the book. What I don’t know is what their names trigger in a British or American mind. Is it normal that the dissident poet is TS Eliot? Does it mean something that the cold, unfeeling and repressed leader is named Yeats? For example, when Yeats-the character says this…

“When I experience base physiological needs for food, water, air, sleep, and sex, I follow protocols in order to satisfy them without experiencing desire. Yes, it’s funny.”

“You fucking what?”

“It’s required to maintain a defence against compromise. Desire is weakness. I’m sure I explained this.”

…does it make any sense compared to Yeats-the-real-poet? I’d be grateful for a little bit of insight. I’m afraid I missed some subtext.

Lexicon is the kind of dystopian fiction you want to have on a long plane journey. It’s a page-turner, it’s entertaining and it makes you think.

This is my fifth Max Barry after Company, about the absurdity of corporate life and management methods (anyone in HR should read it), Syrup, about marketing and the launch of a new soda on the market, Jennifer Government, about consumerism, Machine Man, about transhumanism. All books are dystopian fiction and work around an angle of our contemporary societies. My favourite ones are Company and Jennifer Government. A new novel, Providence is expected in March 2020.

For another review of Lexicon, read Guy’s here. Thanks again, Guy, for introducing me to Max Barry. I also read it as my participation to Brona’s AusReadingChallenge. It’ll last the whole month of November.

Not Fade Away by Jim Dodge – No sex, lots of drugs and a bit of rock’n’roll

October 19, 2019 8 comments

Not Fade Away by Jim Dodge (1987) French title: Not Fade Away. Translated by Nathalie Bru

Not Fade Away by Jim Dodge is a road trip novel with a soundtrack of 1950s rock-‘n’-roll and a driver who pops Benzedrine into his mouth as if they were M&M’s.

We’re at the end of the 1950s. George Gastin operates a tow-truck in San Francisco and participates to insurance scams, mainly wrecking cars and making them disappear. One day, his employer asks him to get rid of a brand-new Cadillac Eldorado. This car was bought by an eccentric old lady as a gift to the Big Bopper, who died in the plane crash that also killed Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens before his fan could give him the car. Now the lady passed away and her heir wants to get money from the insurance.

George decides not to destroy the car but to drive it to Texas, where the Big Bopper is buried. He leaves San Francisco with a few clothes, some cash and a huge bag of Benzedrine. He takes us to a road trip from San Francisco to Iowa.

Early in his trip, he meets Donna, a mother of young kids, married to a useless husband and who struggles to stay afloat. She has a collection of old 45s from the 1950s and George buys them from her to help her financially They will be the soundtrack of his road trip and of our reading trip.

As you imagine, George will meet several colorful characters during his travelling. The most engaging one was Donna, lost in a small town, struggling to survive in her trailer, trapped in a life she didn’t truly want and overwhelmed by motherhood. She met her husband on the song Donna by Ritchie Valens, married young and didn’t truly know what she was getting into. She was not ready to be an adult.

I liked the passage with Donna but I got bored later with the other crazy characters George meets along the way. Reverend Double-Gone Johnson and the world’s greatest salesman weren’t as convincing as Donna. I guess that the three of them represent America: women at home (we’re just before the feminist revolution of 1960s), self-proclaimed preachers and crazy salesmen who could sell ice to an Inuit.

To be honest, I thought that Not Fade Away was too long. 420 pages (in French) was too much in my opinion. I really enjoyed the early moments in San Francisco, the description of the nightlife and the jazz clubs.

George has a blue-collar job but spend his time with artists and books. He struggles to find his place in the world. His life unravels when his girlfriend Kacy leaves him abruptly to embark on a trip to South America. This is when his boss assigns him the Cadillac job and he decides to get out of Dodge with the Cadillac. Not Fade Away had a good start but I got tired of reading George’s drug induced trips, his hallucinations and his crazy driving. The visions and the jokes aren’t that funny if you’re not under influence yourself.

I suppose that Jim Dodge wanted to describe a short period of time, the turning point between the 1950s, the beat generation and the 1960s. I imagine that he wanted to take George to some sort of mystical journey that I didn’t understand, just like I didn’t get Naked Lunch. I’m a Cartesian, a no-nonsense person who’s a bit impervious to soul-searching trips that involve recreational drugs or alcohol. I am not fascinated by On the Road.

Besides the get-high moments, the bits about the beginnings of rock-‘n’-roll are nice. I had a lot of fun making a playlist with all the 1950s songs George mentions as he goes through Donna’s 45s and more. That’s not my usual kind of music but it was nice to hear the songs he was referring too.

The story of the 1950s singers is mentioned and of course, the plane crash that killed the Big Bogger is part of the book. Incidentally, it brought me back to my own adolescence, because I was a teenager when the movie La Bamba went out. (In 1987, same year as Not Fade Away.) New versions of the songs La Bamba and Donna were released at the time and they were big hits.

I’d say Not Fade Away is a nice read but not a must-read. I often associate a book with a song that pops up in my mind while I’m reading. Even if Not Fade Away is full of cheesy songs of the 1950s, I’d say that it goes well with a darker song like Les dingues et les paumés by Hubert-Félix Thiéfaine or with Like a Rolling Stone by Bob Dylan.

PS: It’s amazing how different the French and American covers are.

Another Man’s Mocassins by Craig Johnson – Another trip to Wyoming

October 9, 2019 9 comments

Another Man’s Mocassins by Craig Johnson (2008) French title: Enfants de poussière. Translated by Sophie Aslanides.

Another Man’s Mocassins by Craig Johnson is my fourth trip to the fictional Absaroka County in Wyoming. This is where Sheriff Walt Longmire is law enforcement. After his investigation in Philadelphia, he’s back in Durant, Wyoming, with his daughter Cady who is in PT after her accident.

His quiet routine is broken when the Dunningam brothers find a body by the road while they were baling grass. Longmire isn’t thrilled by the news…and not just because it interrups his diner:

“No matter what aspect of law enforcement with which you might be involved, there’s always one job you dread. I’m sure at the more complicated venues, it’s the terrorists, it’s serial killers, or it’s gang related, but for the western sheriff it’s always been the body dump. To the north, Sheridan County has two unsolved, and Natrona County to the south has five; up until twenty-eight minutes ago, we’d had none. There you stand by some numbered roadway with a victim, no ID, no crime scene, no suspects, nothing.

Not a great situation. The body is a young woman with Vietnamese features. She’s scantily clad, has no shoes and lays there without any information about her identity.

When Longmire’s team eventually finds out who she is, they discover that her name is Ho Thi Paquet and that she has a picture of Longmire with her. The photo dates back to 1967 when Longmire was in Vietnam as a marine inspector. He had befriended Mai Kim, a prostitute who worked at a bar full of American customers. This photo of him playing the piano with Mai Kim in the background brings back memories from the war.

What’s the connection between Mai Kim and Ho Thi Paquet? Why did the victim come to Wyoming, apparently looking for Longmire?

The story goes back and forth in time, as Longmire reminisces his days in Vietnam, a particular investigation on drug trafficking and Mai Kim’s death. In a way, it reminded me of The Black Echo by Michael Connelly. Harry Bosch and Walt Longmire both face an investigation that bring back their time in Vietnam. In both cases, they have a connection with the victim.

I enjoyed the fourth opus of the Longmire series. He’s good at picturing Wyoming and life in Durant. I was glad to hear about the recurring characters and what’s going on with their lives. There’s always a lot of humor in his text, like here in the name of the bar in Vietnam, the Fun Boy-Howdy Beau Coups Good Times Lounge. For French speaking readers, there’s no typo. Beau coups is not beaucoup misspelled. It mean good hookups.

Johnson keeps building his characters, showing Longmire in a new light. There’s his affectionate relationship with his daughter. He supports her during her PT, pushing her with her exercises and disclosing the functioning of their two people family, since Longmire’s wife and Cady’s mother Martha passed away.

Cady never gave up. It was a family trait, and in our tiny family, stories were the coinage of choice, a bartering in the aesthetic of information and the athletics of emotion, so I answered her.

His long-life friend Henry Standing Bear was also in Vietnam in 1967, even if it was in another unit. We know more about the two men’s friendship. I recently learnt that Henry is named after the Ponca Chief Standing Bear (1828-1908), a Native American Civil Rights leader. Chief Standing Bear recently had his statue inaugurated in the National Statuary Hall Collection at the US Capitol. He and Willa Cather represent the State of Nebraska.

Other billets about the Longmire series: The Cold Dish, Death Without Company, Kindness Goes Unpunished

PS: As always, Sophie Aslanides’s translation is impeccable.

My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent – it will leave you breathless

September 15, 2019 13 comments

My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent (2017) French title: My Absolute Darling.

Gabriel Tallent was at Quais du Polar in 2018 although My Absolute Darling is not crime fiction. After reading it, I understand why he was invited: this is a novel that walks on the thin line between literary fiction and thriller.

Turtle Alveston is fourteen and lives in an isolated cabin on the Northern California coast with her father Martin. Her paternal grandfather drinks himself to death in a trailer in the backyard. Martin is a survivalist. He believes that the world is going to collapse, he doesn’t trust the system and trains his daughter to prepare for the end of the world. He’s also abusive and a totally unfit parent.

When the book opens, it’s Spring and Turtle is in her last year of middle school. She does her best to keep everyone at arm’s length. She doesn’t engage with other students, donning a coat of aggressivity to push everyone away. Her English teacher Anna isn’t giving up though. Turtle fails at her spelling tests and Anna pokes at Turtle, feeling that things aren’t right at home.

Martin is a lunatic with his frightening theories, a sort of guru with only one attendant to his cult: his daughter. Martin is a damaged man, intelligent, charismatic and powerful. He’s controlling and uses every means in his possession to nail his power over his daughter. He manipulates her with love, he threatens her and he’s violent, verbally and physically. He beats her up and assaults her. Martin loves his daughter in a very sick way, he calls her my absolute darling. He wants to own her. He leaves nothing out to ensure that she doesn’t venture outside of the cocoon he has created for her. Except that his cocoon isn’t soft and nurturing, its walls are made of sea urchin.

Turtle’s mother is dead, her grandpa cares about her but is too deep in his drunkard hole to take action. Martin does everything he can to keep Turtle under his spell. He’s her dad, her only parent, her only figure of authority. They are isolated and she doesn’t know anything else.

Turtle finds solace in the nature around her house. She’s tough, knows how to live off the land, how to avoid dangers, how to build a fire, how to orientate herself in the wilderness. Martin and her grandpa taught her these skills. She’s an expert with guns, Martin makes her practice all the time. She is a warrior, accumulating a lot of survival skills and inner strength.

Fourteen is a pivotal age. Puberty hits. Children start to take their independence, of mind and of action. They start to hike the awkward trail to adulthood and parents do not control as much as before what they are exposed to and who they are in contact with. Their own social circle starts to be more important than the family one. Parents stop to be heroes who know everything and are always right and become mere humans. It’s the age where Martin’s control over Turtle is meant to slip and this father is not about to accept it. He can’t let her go.

Several events arrive in a short time span. Anna is more insistent in her follow-up. Turtle rescues Brett and Jacob, two teenagers from the local high school who went hiking and got lost. The outside world makes a dent in Turtle’s shell and begins to get to her. Martin taught her skills to cope with the end of the world and to be self-reliant. She will use these skills to claw herself out of her abusive father’s large paws. She will use them to put an end to her world.

And we, readers, follow her, silent witnesses to all her failings, her strength and her inner pep talks.

She thinks, you will trust in your discipline and your courage and you will never leave them and never abandon them and you will be stronger, grim and courageous and hard, and you will never sit as he sits, looking at your life as he looks at it, you will be strong and pure and cold for the rest of your goddamn life and these are lessons you will never forget.

We are rooting for her. We are horrified by her home situation and we watch her looking for her way out, trying to get out of the mental maze where her father holds her prisoner. She’s like a princess, hostage of a dark prince, except that this princess doesn’t wait idly for her knight to rescue her. She’s been raised to think that one can only count of themselves. Fortunately. And in a sense, she’s right. Where are the adults in this story?

My Absolute Darling is Tallent’s debut novel and it is truly extraordinary. He manages to insinuate himself into the mind of a fourteen-year-old abused girl. We are in Turtle’s mind, seeing the world through the distorting glasses she wears, courtesy of her father’s twisted education.

The novel holds together in every aspect. It’s built like a psychological thriller but it isn’t one. Things happen, one at a time, each one adding a brick to the story, pushing it forward, building up suspense and threat. Some scenes are extremely intense and disturbing, some at home with Martin and some in the wilderness, along the shore. Turtle’s life is surrounded with dangers, at home and outside. She has no real safe place.

Gabriel Tallent shows us how hard it is to go out of an abusive relationship and even more when it is a parent/child one. Turtle loves Martin and hates him at the same time. He loves her and is the one who hurts her the most. In an interview, Tallent says he used the relationship between Albertine and the Narrator in The Captive to draw Martin. (See my billet here about The Captive. It’s entitled Every breath you take, every move you make, I’ll be watching you.) I can see how Proust could be helpful.

There is no attempt at psychology or psychiatry in My Absolute Darling. Tallent never tries to put a medical name on Martin’s behavior. We only understand that he had a destructive relationship with his own father. Tallent doesn’t dig further, it’s not his purpose. He focuses on Turtle and we really want her to succeed and climb out of this dark world to join ours. Even if we are destroying nature at a frightening speed and if this world is imperfect.

My Absolute Darling is an excellent book, unbearable to read at time. I had to put it down sometimes, to reconnect to my surroundings because I was too far away with Turtle and her bad place. I had to bring my mind back from that hellish cabin in Northern California. And that, ladies and gentlemen, means that we are in the presence of a very gifted writer.

Highly recommended. Of course, in France, it’s published by Gallmeister.n

Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse by Louise Erdrich – Stunning

August 7, 2019 16 comments

Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse by Louise Erdrich (2001) French title: Dernier rapport sur les miracles à Little No Horse. Translated by Isabelle Reinharez.

Things you need to know about Louise Erdrich before you read this billet. This is from her Goodreads bio: “Karen Louise Erdrich is an American author of novels, poetry, and children’s books. Her father is German American and mother is half Ojibwe and half French American. She is an enrolled member of the Anishinaabe nation (also known as Chippewa). She is widely acclaimed as one of the most significant Native writers of the second wave of what critic Kenneth Lincoln has called the Native American Renaissance.”

This is my second attempt at reading The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse by Louise Erdrich. Somehow, last time I knew it was just a question of bad timing because I really loved this piece of literature.

When the book opens, we’re in 1996 and Father Damian is around a hundred years old. He’s been on the Ojibwe reservation since 1912. He’s been sending letters to the Pope this whole time and now, they’re sending an emissary to investigate the life of Sister Leopolda. Her potential sainthood is at stake and Father Damian knows the truth about her.

We soon discover Father Damian’s personal story. He’s actually a woman. He was born as Agnes DeWitt, became Sister Cecilia when she joined a convent. She had to leave her religious community because she liked playing the piano too much and had a sensual relationship with Chopin’s pieces and her beloved instrument. This was not tolerable for her convent. Released from her vows, she lives on a farm with a German farmer, Bernd Vogel. They fall in love and though they don’t marry, they still have an intense and loving relationship.

Fate strikes, Bernd dies, Agnes is wounded and torrential rains devastate the farm and take away her piano. She survives and happens to take on the identity of Father Damian Modeste who died en route to the Ojibwe reservation of Little No Horse.

Agnes becomes Father Damian. The Last Report on the Miracles on Little No Horse goes back and forth in time. It’s split between a few moments in 1996, when Father Jude investigates Sister Leopolda and makes Damian’s acquaintance, and between tales of the people on the reservation.

The story is not linear, it goes in circles or it’s told by theme: one clan at a time, the interactions between people on the reservation, Father Damian’s personal journey with his faith and his adaptation to the life on the reservation. He befriends Nanapush, a traditional Ojibwe that he never managed to convert to Catholicism.

Father Damian loves the Ojibwe people, they become his people. As soon as Agnes knows where she’s headed, she starts learning the Ojibwe language. She’ll never stop. Father Damian will be a good priest, present during harsh time, understanding, open and always lending a friendly ear.

This is a stunning novel that rings true and it reminded me of Aboriginal literature. It’s the story of a people who has to accept the presence of white men who kill them with foreign illnesses, send them overseas to participate to wars they don’t feel a part of, who try to keep their culture and who live on the edge of two worlds. Even if it’s not a manifesto, the reader reads between the lines and clearly see the struggles, the poverty, the abuse of power and the greed of the white settlers. It is said without animosity but it is said.

We see the lives of human beings who are inhabited passions that they have to live through or try to tame. We follow Agnes/Damian’s doubts, his troubles with her/his double identity and her/his strong faith. Agnes/Damian is a wonderful character who experiences passions in her being, through earthly lovers, through her fusional relationship with music. Father Damian is acutely attuned to the people around him, he catches their vibes, absorbs them and finds the best way to interact with them and take care of them. There is no condemnation in his bones because Agnes knows that Father Damian is her creation, her way to do good. She’s flawed and can’t afford to be too preachy.

Louise Erdrich takes us to Little No Horse, this poor reservation in North Dakota, where part of the Ojibwe Nation still lives today. She said that Little No Horse is not the Turtle Mountain Reservation but it inspired it. She shows us the Ojibwe culture through light and lyrical touches. She doesn’t sugarcoat their hard life or makes them all angels or victims of the white colonization. Story after story, little point after little point, she draws a picture of life at Little No Horse. Time is not a straight line and she allows her narration to go in circles, not following a timeline but associations of ideas.

I understood that this is what Aborigines call “yarning” and I like that term. Every strand of story weaved with the other strands ends up creating a vivid tapestry of life. I read Little Not Horse in French translation. The cover of the French edition is brilliant. It’s a painting by Maynard Dixon who mostly painted the South-West of America, including Indians. This painting is the perfect cover for Erdrich’s book. It shows someone hidden in a cape, someone who conceals their identity and looks like a nun. The naked character embodies the sensuality of Erdrich’s prose and reminds us that love in all its forms is celebrated in this novel. The naked lady is followed by this other character who also looks like death, desolation and despair. It’s the constant fear that Father Damian feels: if someone sees him naked, they’ll know he’s a woman in disguise.

This is an absolutely stunning book. I hold my breath until the end because I knew Father Damian had a secret to tell. I enjoyed reading the stories of the Little No Horse community. I was interested in Agnes/Damian’s struggles as a person and as a believer. Thanks to her luminous prose, Louise Erdrich manages to stay on a thin rope, avoiding sermons and intolerance.

Highly recommended.

Sue, at Whispering Gums recently reviewed The Bingo Palace by Louise Erdrich here. Some characters come from the same community as the ones in Little No Horse. They seem to be their descendants.

The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey – Eco-terrorist western

July 27, 2019 10 comments

The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey (1975) French title: Le gang de la clé à molette. Translated by Jacques Mailhos.

This book, though fictional in form, is based strictly on historical fact. Everything in it is real or actually happened. And it all just began just one year from today. Edward Abbey. Wolf Hole, Arizona.

This cryptic quote by Edward Abbey is the first thing you read when you open The Monkey Wrench Gang. Abbey (1927-1989) was an American nature writer and an environmentalist. He related his experience as a seasonal park ranger at Arches National Park in the 1960s in an autobiographical book, Désert solitaire.

The Monkey Wrench Gang is set in the desert regions of the American southwest. Think Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. It was published in 1975 and remember that the city of Page was founded in 1957, the Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado river was inaugurated in 1964 and that Lake Powell was a result of this dam. All these constructions are fresh in memories and make the news when Abbey wrote his novel. The area changes rapidly with the development of tourism, the construction of interstates and other huge works of engineering.

The Monkey Wrench Gang relates the fast-paced journey of four ill-assorted environmental activists. Or at least, that’s how we’d call them now. Dr Sarvis, Bonnie Abbzug, George Washington Hayduke and Seldom Seen Smith joined their forces to sabotage machines, bridges and constructions to slow down the roadwork and constructions sites in natural places. They can’t bear the scars that these human works do to the natural landscape.

But who are they and how did they form this revolutionary group?

Dr Sarvis, Doc, is a surgeon from Albuquerque. That’s his day job but at night, with the help of his girlfriend Bonnie Abbzug, he burns billboard along the highway because they spoil the view.

Bonnie is a Jewish young woman from the Bronx. She’s a feminist, exploring her sexuality freely and in rebellion against her upbringing. In other words, Abbzug is at war with society, with herself and with her family. She loves the adrenaline of their mission and she follows Doc around. She’s much younger than him, and their relationship suffers from it because he expects to be dumped at any moment. He introduced her to environmental sabotage and she found a cause to embrace in this fight against the system.

Despite their illegal activities, Doc and Abbzug remain active members of the society. Doc is still a surgeon, and his profession is profitable enough to fund his underground activities. He’s the banker of the operation and a closeted anarchist.

Cover of the original edition

Hayduke is a former Green Beret from the Vietnam war. He suffers from PTSD, his days in Vietnam haunt him. He’s well-trained and able to survive in difficult conditions. He knows how to manipulate explosives, thanks to his time in the army. He knows all the tricks to make secret missions a success. But his temper is volatile, highly inflammable. He guzzles beer as if it were water. He loves firearms and carries an arsenal around. He despises all kind of authority. He’s an outsider, unpredictable and scares the others. He has nothing to lose and that makes him dangerous, even in the eyes of his accomplices. And he’s sexist and behaves like an oaf. He’s a solitary man who enjoys hiking, spending time in the wilderness.

Seldom Seen Smith is a Mormon. He lives in Utah and has three wives in different houses. They seldom see him, hence his nickname. He works as a tourist guide in the area and he knows it extremely well. Smith is grounded by his wives. He has homes he can go back to; his life is there in these mountains, in this desert and he has something to lose if things go wrong.

The three men have complementary skills: one can bring money, one knows the land like the back of his hand and the other has the organizational and technical knowledge to make their missions happen. Abbzug tags along but is still an active participant. She also has the classic role of the femme fatale.

The four of them met when Doc, Abzzug and Hayduke booked a tour with Smith. They share a common hatred for all the destructions of nature in the region; roads, dams and mines are their targets. This group of misfits finds a common ground in their protest against the destruction of nature to build dams, exploit the soil or drive faster on an autobahn instead of using the highway 66. This team who sometimes struggles to work together engages into a dangerous run against the clock to destroy as many machines and roadworks as possible before they get caught. Their only limit is that no worker shall be injured or killed by their sabotage.

Abbey embarks us on a thrilling road trip with this quartet of self-made activists. The Monkey Wrench Gang has something of westerns, of pulp and of cartoons, which means that suspension of belief is needed to enjoy the ride. Hayduke and Charlie Hardie, the character invented by Duane Swierczynski in the Charlie Hardie trilogy seem to have a connection somewhere in their family tree. They have mad survival skills, like in a Road Runner and Wild E. Coyote episode and they are running away from the law. In Abbey’s book, Bishop Love, the local law enforcement is the pursuant. He’s like a villain in a cartoon, a mafia godfather with a court of minions and a lot of means to track down our quartet of nature vigilantes.

Abbey knew the region very well and it shows in its gorgeous descriptions of the landscape. I’ve been in the area and although I remained on the touristy tracks, Abbey’s words brought back memories.

Instead of writing an essay or a pamphlet, he wrote this indescribable novel full of fervent denunciation of the irrevocable damages that mankind does to nature in the name of progress. And forty-four years later, see where it led us.

Abbey managed to write a revolutionary and yet playful book. It’s serious in its fight for the cause of wilderness against mankind’s greed and shameless destructions. It questions unbridled development and points out the damages that western civilization does to natural places. See below a photo of the collection Earth From Above by Yann Arthus-Bertrand, it’s a coal mine in Arizona.

Mine de charbon à ciel ouvert, Arizona, Etats-Unis (32°21’ N – 111°12’ O).

The Monkey Wrench Gang was an influential book. Monkey wrenching became a term to describe that kind of sabotage. The founders of Earth First! Claim that Abbey was their model. It’s a revolutionary book, and typically American in the way that the characters relate to wilderness and are weary of governmental power.

It’s a book that stays with you for a long time after you’ve read it, probably even more these days, with all the state of our planet. Abbey loved this region and wanted to fight for it. He loved it so much that he asked to be buried in the desert and nobody knows where his grave is. He’s back to the wilderness and thirty years after his death, his books are still relevant and fun.

Highly recommended to anyone but especially to people who intend to visit the area. (Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, Bryce Canyon…)

The Débâcle by Emile Zola – A reading debacle for me

June 10, 2019 16 comments

The Débâcle by Emile Zola (1892) Original French title: La Débâcle.

I read La Débâcle by Zola along with Marina Sofia and I have to confess that I’ve been a terrible reading companion. We agreed to post our billets on May 31st and I only finished reading it today. I must say that I have the Kindle version and I realized too late that the book was more than 600 pages long.

La Débâcle is the 19th opus of the Rougon-Macquart series and it is about the 1870 Franco-Prussian war. It results in the fall of Napoléon III and the Second Empire, the beginning of the Third Republic and the formation of the German Empire. It is a catastrophic war for France as the country lost the Alsace-Moselle territories and nursed Revanchism. It sowed the seeds of hatred that fed WWI. As mentioned in my billet about Leurs enfants après eux by Nicolas Mathieu, I come from Alsace-Moselle, where most of the battles occurred and that was annexed to Germany until 1919. This piece of history resonates in me and I was interested in reading about this war which, to this day, in never taught in school.

In La Débâcle, we follow Jean Macquart and Maurice Levasseur during the whole war. They belong to the same regiment, become friends and will support each other. There is not much character development in La Débâcle, the war is the main character, a bloodthirsty ogress that devours her children. The novel is an implacable condemnation of war.

Zola depicts the stupidity of the generals who led the war and commanded the soldiers. He shows an inefficient commandment, unable to make decisions, useless when it comes to military strategy and losing ground because of its sheer incompetence. Zola’s novel is very graphic: he describes the exhaustion of the soldiers who move around aimlessly, the massacre on the battle field, the deaths, the agony of horses, the killing of civilians, the hunger of prisoners, the ambulance and care of wounded soldiers. In a very cinematographic way, he is like a war reporter, writing about the theatre of operations and in the heart of the action. He draws a precise picture of the consequences of war on civilians, the carelessness of the commandment with the life of their soldiers. 139 000 French soldiers and 41 000 German soldiers died between July 19th 1870 and January 28th, 1871. A bloodshed, there’s no other word for it.

Zola has a purpose with the Rougon-Macquart series, he wants to tell the story of the Second Empire. It’s not surprising that Jean and Maurice are part of a regiment that followed the Emperor and fought in Sedan, where Napoléon III capitulated, fled to Belgium and ended the Second Empire. We hear about the battles in Alsace and Moselle through the papers but the characters do not participate to this part of the campaign.

Zola’s aim is commendable but I think he said in 600 pages what Joseph Roth would have said in 300. The descriptions are too long. In the first part, the soldiers walk, walk, walk and look for food, and cook and eat. Sure, it shows pretty well the state of the army and its mismanagement. The generals don’t get along, can’t agree on a strategy, have feel of the land, have inefficient intelligence and don’t know where the enemy is. They make the troops walk around aimlessly, they wear them out, physically and mentally. Did we need so many pages to get the picture? Certainly not.

I know the region; I could follow the soldiers’ journey but I wonder how foreigners manage to read this and not get lost. Maybe they get the same feeling as the soldiers: they feel rushed around from one place to the other.

The second part in Sedan is awful. The descriptions of the massacres and the deaths are very graphic and again, way too long. We follow the artillery, the cavalry, the infantry, the civilians. Thank God Sedan is not beside the sea and there were no planes yet or we would have had to go through the description of the battle on the water and in the air as well.

The third part is easier to read, it shows the aftermath of the rendition of Sedan, the presence of Germans in the country, gives news about the Alsace-Moselle front, the war progresses, the loss is inevitable. There are a few pages about La Commune de Paris but while the events were probably known to Zola’s contemporaries, it’s not so obvious for today’s reader and I didn’t get much out of it.

So, La Débâcle is a painful read because it’s too long, too descriptive but what Zola writes is accurate despite the pomposity and the prejudice against the Second Empire. I know that because this weekend I visited the Museum of the 1870 War and the Alsace-Moselle Annexation in Gravelotte. It’s a bilingual museum (French and German) that retraces the 1870 war in Moselle. Gravelotte was one of the battle sites, a place where the combats were so fierce that there is a popular expression that says “Ca tombe comme à Gravelotte:” (It’s dropping like in Gravelotte), to say that it’s pouring. It is a fascinating museum, well stocked and very educational. Historians confirmed what Zola describes. There’s even a painting by Lucien Marchet, based upon a chapter in La Débâcle, the battle of Bazeilles:

Zola’s novel helped me realize that the 1870 war was the last one with cavalry battles and the first industrial one, where soldiers were sent to a sure death. They were killed by shells, the French had bullet cannons and Zola writes about trenches. I thought that the French army had learnt nothing about this war if we consider the beginning of WWI: the soldiers were still wearing red pants, noticeable from afar and turning them into easy targets. The whole army was ill-prepared for modern war. I also wondered what Zola would have written about WWI if he had been alive to see it.

Zola’s book ends on a hopeful note, the idea that this debacle is also the beginning of a new order, the Third Republic. The hopeful note in the Gravelotte museum is that Robert Schuman who was born in Luxembourg as a German citizen in 1886, went to school and university in Germany, became French in 1919, lived through WWI and WWII and became one of the founders of the European Coal and Steel Community, the starting base of the EU. We, Europeans, needed two more devastating wars to stop fighting against each other. Slow learners, that’s what we are. Let’s hope we are not forgetful too.

Please read Marina Sofia’s reviews Zola: The Débacle Readalong and The Debacle of Zola’s Vision of the Paris Commune.

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