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German Lit Month : Ice Moon by Jan Costin Wagner

November 11, 2017 12 comments

Ice Moon by Jan Costin Wagner (2003) French title : Lune de glace. Translated from the German by Stéphanie Lux.

As I’m now embarked in Miklós Bánffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy, Ice Moon by Jan Costin Wagner will be my only contribution to Caroline and Lizzy’s German Lit Month.

Ice Moon is the first instalment of the crime fiction series featuring Kimmo Joentaa, a Finish police officer. Jan Costin Wagner is German and lives half the year in Finland with his Finnish wife. This explains the Finnish setting of his books. We are in Turku, a city located in the South-West of Finland. It opens with a heartbreaking scene: Kimmo Joentaa is at the hospital where his young wife is dying of cancer. The first moments of the book are dedicated to her death and the devastation that invades every nook and corner of Kimmo’s being.

At the same time, a woman is discovered dead in her sleep. The police station in Turku is in a turmoil and a bit overwhelmed with the investigation. Against his officer’s wishes, Joentaa decides to go back to work soon after his wife’s death, partly to be occupied and tame his sadness and partly because he wants to solve this crime.

The book alternates between Kimmo’s and the murderer’s point of view. The reader knows from the start who did it and reads through the race between the police and the murderer. Will the police catch him before he commits other crimes?

I’m not too fond of books were the murderer has a mental illness or is obviously unbalanced. I think it’s an easy device. I prefer crime fiction books that either explore the evil inside of us or show how a bad decision can lead you to crime. I’d rather read about perfectly sane murderers who act badly out of greed, to protect themselves or whatever but who are not pushed by a mental illness. I think it’s more interesting to question our dark side than to read about a “crazy” serial killer. This side of Ice Moon didn’t appeal to me but it’s more a question of preference in terms of crime fiction in general than a problem with the book itself.

I was more disturbed by Kimmo Joentaa as a character. His grief consumes his days and his nights. He tries to cope with his wife’s death, with his solitude in their home. He’s a difficult man to understand. His wife grounded him in an unhealthy way. He didn’t seem to be a whole man before her and now that she’s gone, his balance is challenged. There are some disturbing passages where Kimmo enters into a weird connection with the murderer that helps him understands the criminal’s motives and modus operandi and it made me ill-at-ease. I’m not sure I want to be in Kimmo’s head for another book.

All in all, it’s well-written even if it’s cold, maybe due to the setting, maybe due to the original language. Books translated from the German often seem a little cold and uptight to me, I can’t explain why. Plot-wise it holds together but it didn’t quite work for me. It felt as weird as its book cover. There’s another review by Guy here.

Have you read it? If yes, did you like it?

Black Moses by Alain Mabanckou

November 5, 2017 16 comments

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

Mabanckou’s novel Black Moses opens like this:

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

(Translation by Helen Stevenson)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quand je croise un voleur malchanceux,

Poursuivi par un cul-terreux;

Je lance la patte et pourquoi le taire,

Le cul-terreux se r’trouv’ par terre.

Je ne fais pourtant de tort à personne,

En laissant courir les voleurs de pommes ;

When I run into an unlucky thief

Chased by a hick

I stick out my foot and why keep it quiet,

The hick finds himself on the ground

Yet I don’t do harm to anyone

By letting apple thieves have a run. 

Translation from the site Brassens With English

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

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

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

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

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

Your Face Will Be the Last by João Ricardo Pedro

October 27, 2017 9 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

Portuguese Lit: Jesus Christ Drank Beer by Afonso Cruz

September 3, 2017 10 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What a sight it would be.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thirteen Ways of Looking by Colum McCann

August 23, 2017 13 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The three short stories are very different from one another.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Datsunland by Stephen Orr

August 13, 2017 17 comments

Datsunland by Stephen Orr (2017) Not available in French.

I loved The Hands by Stephen Orr so much that when Wakefield Press requested reviewers for Orr’s new collection of short stories, I asked for an advanced copy of Datsunland. And to be honest, it’s hard to write about it. Usually, when I write a billet about a collection of short-stories, I try to find common points between stories but here, I have a hard time finding them, so I’m going to write a billet that sounds like a six-degree-of-separation post, each story leading me to the other. It’ll make you see the variety of the stories.

The stories are set in different countries at different times from the beginning of the 20th century to nowadays. Several involve religious characters and they’re all on a scale going from weird to unbalanced. The Keeping of Miss Mary is about Brother Philipp, a teacher at Lindisfarne College who takes care of Miss Mary in his home. So far so good. Except that Miss Mary has been on a wheelchair since a car accident when she was twelve and nobody knows that she lives with Brother Philipp. He sees her as a challenge since she stopped believing in God after her accident but he’s also attracted to her and he enjoys the companionship, even if it seems one sided. It’s the sad story of a loving man whose religion condemned him to celibacy and who would have loved to have his own family. He found another path to have it and comply with his faith.

The Syphilis Museum is about Bill a fervent Catholic who loves his town, his religion. He first started to save his dying town, Reeves. When a shop closed, Bill bought the premises and founded a museum. This is how the Museum of Pestilence, the Museum of Famine, the Museum of War and the Museum of Syphilis. Getting older and lacking time, he decided to concentrate on the Syphilis Museum and how awful the illness is and how abstinence is the best prevention method. Then Mrs Bly arrives, challenges his speech, pushes him until we discover why it’s such a sensitive topic for her.

Akdak Ghost is about Preacher Fletcher who wants to shoot a video to increase the number of his parishioners. He wants people to find Jesus but the more the filming goes on, the more the reader see that Preacher Fletcher is not as sane as a pastor should be.

And then there’s religion as a political tool, in The Confirmation. It’s a story set in Northern Ireland in 1976. A man is coming home from work to son’s Confirmation ceremony when the bus he’s on is ambushed by IRA combatants.

At least two stories portray human cruelty to other and these stayed with me. The Adult World Opera features six-years old Jay, a very lonely child who’s abused by his mother’s boyfriend. It’s always hard for me to read about child abuse of any kind and it was particularly difficult. A Descriptive List of the Birds Native to Shearwater, Australia is a different kind of cruelty. Mark and Susan are on a field trip in Shearwater to visit a dwarf town. A literal dwarf town where little persons run an open-air museum. Susan is terribly ill-a-ease while Mark enjoys himself under the false pretense of compassion. Susan discovers a side of her husband that she never suspected:

But now, now she suspected she’d misread him completely. Compassion, or a forensic fascination? A desire to pin every man onto a foam backing board, watch him wriggle, die, and dry out, write a label that said, ‘Can man’, ‘Aborigine’, ‘Dwarf’. To close the box and forget, knowing he’d made some attempt to understand, but really just to observe, to know, to control.

This is not the only one showing how spouses can be estranged. In Guarding the Pageant, Sam left his safe job to chase his dream and be a writer. His wife never expected this and their marriage went south. The story tells us what happened to his dream. How much do you know your spouse? What should you sacrifice, your dreams or your current life? In The Barmerva Drive-in, Trevor chose to go after his dream and restore an old drive-in.

Three stories have themes that reminded me of The Hands. The Shot-put mentions the episode of the cowards’ lists that the Australian government published after WWI. They were lists of deserters and what a shame it was to have your son on the list. The Shack is the story of an old man, dying from lung disease and who wonders what will happen to his mentally handicapped son after he’s gone. The Photographer’s Son is set in a rural area and Adrian is told some of the family’s secrets.

Life in the outback is the main topic of Dr Singh’s Despair, the story of an Indian doctor who traveled from India to take a medical position in the Australian outback. Dr Sevanand Singh is not prepared for what’s ahead of him. Nobody’s at the airport to welcome him, his accommodation is not exactly ready. Mark, a local guy tries to make him understand the local way-of -life.

And with these few words Mark Ash knew that Sevanand was not the one. He could already guess how long he’d last – four, five, maybe six months. ‘Listen, Dr Singh, Sevanand,’ he said, ‘up here you gotta take things as they come. It’s bush time. You know? Outback time. Like the black fellas. Doesn’t bother them if it takes six months to change a tyre. A year, ten years, so what? Get what I mean?’ Sevanand tried to smile. ‘And people enjoy their sex?’ Ash slapped his knee and laughed. ‘Yeah, that’s it, that’s how you wanna be.’ ‘Flexible?’ ‘That’s one way, eh?’ And he broke up laughing. ‘Beer?’ ‘Plenty of beer.’ ‘And humour?’ Ash stopped. ‘That, my friend, is the most important thing of all.’ ‘So, I wait for my room? In the meantime?’ And smiled. ‘A few nights’ kip? I’ve got the perfect place.’

Dr Singh is used to more respect and this is not what he signed up for. Will he be able to adapt?

Datsunland is the longest and probably the best story of the collection. Charlie Price is 14, a student at Lindisfarne College when William Dutton is hired as a music teacher. Charlie has lost his mom to cancer, William never made it as a rock star. Somewhere, they’ll find common ground thanks to rock and blues and become friends, beyond the age difference. William is an adult Charlie feels comfortable with, probably because he’s not settled. He’s still chasing his adolescent dream of being in a band and making a living with music. He doesn’t have a wife and children. William recognizes Charlie’s talent but also his pain. But in a traditional small town, teacher and student can’t be friends. Like in The Hands, Stephen Orr has a knack for being in a young boy’s head and Charlie sounds real. And it raises a valid question: are we so focused on risks of child molestation that we can’t imagine that a child might find a mentor in a teacher and that sometimes, it’s important to have another adult figure in your life than the ones in your family?

I enjoyed Orr’s collection of short stories very much. Some stories were poignant and several were dark, much darker than I expected. Of course, for me, there’s also the exoticism of Australia. Outdoor pageants for Christmas because it’s summer time. Odd words like kranksies and ute. The wilderness of the outback. Some remnant of British culture with Lindisfarne College.

You can find other reviews on Lisa’s blog, one for the whole collection and one for the main story, Datsunland.

Many thanks to Wakefield Press for sending me an ARC of Datsunland. Sorry it took me so long to write this billet.

PS: Sorry French readers, this is not available in French.

Spanish Lit Month: The Sadness of the Samurai by Víctor del Árbol

August 11, 2017 11 comments

The Sadness of the Samurai by Víctor del Árbol (2011) Original Spanish title: La tristeza del Samurái French title: La tristesse du Samouraï. Translated by Claude Bleton.

Peu d’êtres humains supportent leur propre regard, car les miroirs déclenchent un phénomène curieux : vous regardez ce que vous voyez, mais si vous traversez la surface, vous avez l’impression désagréable que c’est le reflet qui vous regarde avec insolence. Il vous demande qui vous êtes. Comme si l’étranger, c’était vous, pas lui.

Few human beings can stand their own reflection because something strange happens in front of the mirror: You are looking at what you see, but if you dig a little deeper, beyond the surface, you are overcome by an uncomfortable feeling that it is the reflection that is looking at you insolently. You ask yourself who you are. As if you, and not the reflection, were the stranger.

Translated by Mara Faye Lethem.

In the prologue of The Sadness of the Samurai by Víctor del Árbol, we’re in 1981, in a hospital room in Barcelona where María is dying. She’s also under police protection and she’s about to write everything she knows about an investigation and crimes she was involved in.

Flash back to 1941. We’re in Mérida, Spain, not far from the Portuguese border of the Alentejo region. Isabel Mola is at the train station with her younger son Andrés. She’s fleeing Spain leaving her husband Guillermo and her nineteen years old son Fernando behind. Andrés’s tutor, Marcelo Alcalá has property in Portugal where she intends to hide until she can immigrate to England. The Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) is finished and the aftermath is called the Blue Terror, a period of elimination of political opposition. Guillermo Mola has a high-ranking position in the Falange and has a lot of power in the Mérida region. Isabel Mola had an affair with a man from the opposition and this someone just betrayed her. He came to take her son back to his father and to make her disappear. Guillermo’s second in command, Publio, is the one who organizes Isabel’s murder and frames Marcelo Alcalá for it. Isabel’s affair and its consequences will set the future of the Molas, the Alcalás and her lover’s family.

María, the dying woman, is a lawyer and in 1976, she was the defense attorney of a client who had been tortured and beaten up by a policeman, César Alcalá, Marcelo’s son. He was investigating Publio’s shady past when his daughter Marta was kidnapped.

That’s all I’ll say about the plot because it’s hard to write about this book without spoilers.

The Sadness of the Samurai is well-constructed. We go back and forth between 1941 and 1980/1981. Isabel Mola’s death will set a lot of events into motion, especially after Marcelo Alcalá is condemned to death penalty for it. When María sends César Alcalá in prison decades later, she doesn’t realize that she’s just opened a can of worms that are forty-years old, well-alive and venomous. Isabel Mola’s betrayal and murder will resurface. In the young Spanish democracy, former Franco officials like Publio managed to find a place in the new regime. We see the same phenomenon in Balzac’s novels after the fall of Napoléon. It doesn’t mean that Publio and his crowd changed their methods: murder, violence and torture are the common tools of dictatorships. They mastered in them, why abandon them? And in 1980, when María puts her nose in this story, nothing was solved, nothing was investigated and the crimes from the past were swiftly put under the carpets of the brand-new democracy. And this young democracy will be tested during the coup d’état attempt on 23 February 1981.

The personal history of the characters is a web of connections, of betrayals and secrets. In 1980, three generations cohabit. The older generation, the one who was active during the Civil War and who is responsible for the conduct of the war and its subsequent terror. The Fascists won, a dictatorship of forty years started. The winners got the power, the losers were hunted and went in hiding. This generation is represented by Guillermo Mola, Publio, Marcelo Alcalá, Isabel Mola and her lover.

The children of this generation, the ones who were born in the 1930s is a sacrificed generation. Their childhood was tainted by war and its consequences. They suffered from hunger, they witnessed the violence and knew which side the adults were. They lived most of their lives in a dictatorship and were already middle-aged when democracy was instaured. This generation is represented by Fernando Mola (1923), Andrés Mola (1931) and César Alcalá (1933).

The third generation is the baby-boomers. They grew up under Franco but where young when he died.  María belongs to this generation and she doesn’t know anything about her parents’ past. What they did during the Civil War is not discussed.

Víctor del Árbol shows the fragility of the democracy but also a country that never healed their wounds. There’s a lot of unsaid between the generations and the events of the Civil War were not clearly acknowledged. The wounds festered. Hatred is a predominant feeling in this novel. Hatred and resentment against people who murdered a mother, who managed to keep up appearances and remained in power despite being the mastermind behind a lot of crimes.

To be honest, I was a bit disappointed by this side of the story. I was not convinced by this violent hatred that burnt so bright for forty years. Is it possible to keep it so strong all those years? Does it not fade a bit because one must live their life and it costs too much sterile energy to keep hating those who wronged you? It doesn’t mean that people forget but to be motivated by hatred the way these characters are was not totally plausible to me. A powerful sense of justice, a need to have the criminals convicted, yes, I would have understood that but blind hatred? I

It’s a minor flaw, though and not one big enough to stay away from The Sadness of the Samurai. Víctor del Árbol does paint a convincing portray of Spain and according to his speech at Quais du Polar, showing how many issues still need to be addressed in Spain regarding Franco’s time is a significant part of his writing. He was born in Barcelona in 1968 and he said that when he was a child, people threatened unruly children by saying that the Republicans would come and take them if they weren’t quiet. Isn’t that incredible that people still said that in the early 1970s?

This is the second crime fiction novel I’ve read that mentions the coup d’état attempt of February 1981. The first time was in A Fly’s Wing by Aníbal Malvar. This is a major event in Spain’s recent history and as often, reading pushed me to dig further and learn new things.

Good news, contrary to One-Way Journey by Carlos SalemThe Sadness of the Samurai by Víctor del Árbol is available in English!

This is my third contribution to Stu and Richard’s Spanish & Portuguese Lit Month.

 

 

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