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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.

Wait for Signs. Twelve Longmire Stories by Craig Johnson

August 3, 2017 6 comments

Wait for Signs. Twelve Longmire Stories by Craig Johnson (2014) Not really available in French.

Wait for Signs is peculiar collection of short stories by Craig Johnson. They all feature the characters of Johnson’s Walt Longmire series, about a rural sheriff in Wyoming. These stories are snapshots of Longmire’s life as a sheriff but also as a man. My favorite ones are Old Indian Trick, Messenger and Divorce Horse.

In Old Indian Trick, Longmire is driving his Cheyenne friend Lonnie Little Bird to the hospital for a check-up. On the way, they stop at a restaurant for coffee and arrived just after it’s been robbed. Switching into sheriff mode, Longmire starts investigating the case. At some point, his friend tells him who the culprit is and where he lives. After Travis the thief is under arrest, Longmire asks his friend how he knew and if it was an old Indian trick. Lonnie shrugs and Longmire realizes that Travis is so stupid that he filled in an application form before robbing the restaurant and gave accurate contact information. As Longmire points out if you sat a bag of groceries next to Travis, the groceries would get into Stanford before he would, something that the French translator translated into “si on posait un panier de légumes à côté de Travis, les légumes arriveraient à Stanford avant lui. Please note that in French, a bag of groceries (literally, “un sac de provisions”) becomes un panier de légumes. (A basket of vetegables) It means a lot about French eating habits, I think.

For me, Messenger is the funniest story of the collection. Longmire, his Cheyenne best friend Henry The Bear and his deputy Vic are on their way back from a fishing trip. They intercept a message on the radio. It comes from a local ranger, Chuck, who’s asking for help: he’s in such a dangerous situation that he’ll soon have to use his gun. Longmire drives up to Crazy Woman Canyon, a spot in the Big Horn Mountains, where they find Chuck and Andrea Napier, a tourist from California. Both are stuck on the roof of a Porta Potty, surrounded by a bear and her cubs since Ms Napier had fed the bears with popcorn. Despite the situation, Longmire and his friends can’t help cracking jokes and see the funny side of moment:

It was really unfair to call it a Porta Potty. It was actually much more than that—what they call in the literature a self-contained, freestanding restroom facility. It sat on a concrete pad and was made of heavy wood with a lower foundation of masonry and river rock. With a short overhang and shallow shingled roof, it must’ve been a chore to climb onto.

Longmire convinces Henry to change their fishing loot into treats for the bears. While Henry diverts the bears’ attention with fresh fish, Longmire and Vic help Chuck and Ms Natier out.

Then the tourist explains that something hit her bottom when she was using the facilities and that it freaked her out. Longmire is skeptical but eventually discovers that there’s an owl stuck into the toilet. He’s about to shoot it when Henry comes back and explains that the Cheyenne believe that owls are messengers of the dead and that they bring word from worlds beyond. Therefore, the owl must be saved. This is how Vic ends up head first in the toilet to catch the owl with Longmire and Henry holding her by her feet.

Anyone who’s ever seen the kind of restroom they have in American National Parks can imagine the scene and the stench. Johnson’s description is very cinematographic and always laced with his humorous undertone. I imagined the scene perfectly and as always you can feel that this writer knows his settings. He lives in Wyoming, he knows the place and I’d love to know how much he invented int his story and how much he borrowed to the local newspaper. I suspect that the Californian tourist stuck on the Porta Potty roof after feeding the bears with popcorn is a true story.

Divorce Horse is set during a pow-wow. Tommy Jefferson, a participant to the horse races complains that the horse that the sheriff department has nicknamed Divorce Horse has been stolen. Tommy was married to Lisa and she asked for a divorce because he spent more time taking care of his horses than her. It was a nasty divorce, Tommy kept on calling her and the sheriff department got involved. Now Lisa is back in town and Divorce Horse has been stolen. What happens with the horse, Tommy and Lisa holds the story together but the most interesting part of the story is the description of the pow-wow, of the horse races and of the weather.

The weekend had been blessed with three memorable spring evenings where you could smell the grass in the pastureland, and the sagebrush and cottonwoods that had been holding their breath since October gasped back to life. The cool of the evening was just starting to creep down from the mountains, but it was still T-shirt weather, if long-sleeve T-shirt weather.

Again, we can hear that the writer himself belongs here, that he’s more than familiar with Wyoming.

Among the nine other stories, two feature Longmire and his grief over his wife’s death. The other stories are encounters with strangers, fleeting moments in Longmire’s life.

I have also read An Old Indian Trick and Divorce Horse in French because Gallmeister, Johnson’s French publisher gave them as gifts. Sophie Aslanides is Craig Johnson’s translator for French readers. She’s excellent. She knows him, she spent time at his ranch and you can feel it in the fine tuning of her translations. Craig Johnson sounds the same in French and in English. She managed to translate his Americanisms into French. For example, Yep becomes Ouaip. It’s the same level of language, the same tune, it’s fantastic. Here’s an example:

After a moment, a weedy looking young woman came to the door and looked at me. She did not open the screen and had the look of someone who had taken life on early, made some bad choices, and had gotten her ass kicked.

Au bout d’un moment, une jeune femme malingre apparut et me regarda. Elle n’ouvrit pas la porte. Elle donnait l’impression d’avoir commencé à vivre très tôt, d’avoir fait les mauvais choix et de s’en être mordu les doigts.

I suppose that this collection of stories will mostly interest the readers of the series. It’s like making a phone call to a friend to hear how he’s doing. I imagine that fans of Commissaire Adamsberg or Chief Inspector Gamache will understand the appeal. We share glimpses of Longmire’s quotidian. It introduces us to the everyday life of a rural sheriff. He doesn’t face a lot of pure violence but he ends up meeting all kind of people:

“I’m serious, Sheriff. She says she’s supposed to meet Him. Here. Today.” I wasn’t sure if I’d heard her right. “Jesus?” “Yes.” “Jesus.” I sighed, glancing around trying not to cast aspersions, but it was hard. “Returning after two thousand years and He chooses the Sinclair station in Powder Junction, Wyoming?” “Apparently.”

The stories give us clues about Longmire’s personality. Johnson’s tales are always full of humanity, spiced up with a good sense of humor and a strong sense of place. A nice and comforting read.

PS: For French readers. This collection is not available in French, per se. However, it is easy to read in English.

Spanish Lit Month : No Word From Gurb by Eduardo Mendoza

July 31, 2017 10 comments

No Word From Gurb by Eduardo Mendoza (1990) French title : Sans nouvelles de Gurb. (Translated by François Mespero. Original Spanish title: Sin noticias de Gurb)

Lucky me, this year, Spanish Lit Month hosted by Stu and Richard is extended to August and to Portuguese Literature. Since I’m on holiday in Spain and Portugal, I’m more than happy to participate. This billet is my first about Spanish literature this year. Don’t count on me to write a billet on a book by Javier Marias, I’m not a fan. But like last year with Exemplary Crimes by Max Aub, I picked up two crazy books, No Word From Gurb by Eduardo Mendoza and One Way Journey by Carlos Salem. I loved Salem’s Swimming Without Getting Wet and I wanted to read another one by him. But that will be another billet.

First published by instalments in El Païs, No Word From Gurb is a novella by Eduardo Mendoza. It is the diary of an alien who landed in Barcelona from his planet. He’s accompanied in his mission to explore the planet Earth by his partner Gurb. In order to explore our world inconspicuously, they pick a physical appearance in a catalogue. Gurb went out looking like Madonna and went missing. The book was written in 1990, you can imagine the kind of attention he must have brought to himself walking around looking like Madonna.

The unnamed narrator and author of the diary decides to leave their spaceship to look for Gurb. From the 10th to the 24th of this month, we follow our narrator in his adventures in Barcelona. And it’s huge fun as he explores both the city and human condition.

As mentioned before, we’re in 1990, two years before the Barcelona Olympic Games and the city is a work in progress. Traffic is horrendous and dangerous as the Narrator soon experiences:

8h00 Je me matérialise à l’endroit dénommé carrefour Diagonale-Paseo de Gracia. Je suis écrasé par l’autobus n°17 Barceloneta-Vall d’Hebron. Je dois récupérer ma tête qui est allée rouler à la suite de la collision. Opération malaisée du fait de l’affluence des véhicules.

8h01 : Ecrasé par une Opel Corsa

8h02 : Ecrasé par une camionnette de livraison

8h03 : Ecrasé par un taxi

8h04 : Je récupère ma tête et je la lave à une fontaine publique située à quelques mètres du lieu de la collision. J’en profite pour analyser la composition de l’eau locale : hydrogène, oxygène et caca.

8:00 I materialize myself at a place named crossroads Diagonale-Paseo de Gracia. I am run over by the bus n°17 Barceloneta-Vall d’Hebron. I have to fetch my head that rolled away after the collision. Difficult action because of the flow of vehicles.

8:01: Run over by an Opel Corsa

8:02: Run over by a delivery truck

8:03 : Run over by a taxi

8:04: I fetch my head and I wash it in a nearby public fountain. I take advantage of the task to analyze the local water: hydrogen, oxygen and poo.

They are some roadworks everywhere, museums are closed for renovations and when the Narrator wants to buy an apartment, the realtor asks him if he wants to buy one in the Olympic Village. The whole city runs around the upcoming event.  Mendoza gently mocks the city council of Barcelona.

La pluie de Barcelone ressemble à l’activité de son Conseil municipal : elle est rare, mais quand elle tombe, elle est d’une brutalité stupéfiante. The Barcelona rain looks like the activity of its city council: it is rare but when it happens, it is of a stupefying brutality.

One of the local councilors encourages the Barcelona inhabitants to trade their car for a bike to improve traffic in the city center. Our Narrator comments:

Peut-être les gens se serviraient-ils davantage de bicyclettes si la ville était plus plate, mais c’est un problème insoluble car elle est déjà entièrement construite comme cela. Une autre solution serait que la municipalité mettre des bicyclettes à disposition des passants dans la partie haute de la ville, ce qui leur permettrait de se laisser glisser très rapidement jusqu’au centre, presque sans pédaler. Une fois au centre, la même municipalité (ou, en son lieu et place, une entreprise concessionnaire) se chargerait de mettre les bicyclettes sur des camions et de les renvoyer dans la partie haute. Ce système serait relativement peu coûteux. Maybe people would use their bikes more often if the city were flat but it’s an intractable problem because it’s already built that way. Another solution would be that the city put bikes at the disposal of people living in the highest part of the city. They could glide quickly to the city center, almost without pedaling. Once in the city center, the municipality (or a private company) would load the bikes on trucks and bring them back to the upper neighborhoods. This would be a cheap system.

We’re in 1990. I don’t know if this existed somewhere. However, I know that in 2005 the city of Lyon, which is about as flat as Barcelona, signed a contract with JC Decaux to provide free bikes around the city. It is well-known to Lyon inhabitants that people ride bikes down from the Croix-Rousse neighborhood but never up and that trucks need to bring the bikes up there. Visionary Narrator, it seems.

The Narrator also interacts with different people in Barcelona, a café owner and his wife, a concierge, his neighbors and various salespeople in shops. Once he gets acquainted with a corporate executive and Mendoza makes fun of the business frenzy in Catalonia.

Besides exploring Barcelona’s way-of-life, the Narrator also experiences human condition. He takes colloquial expressions at face value and it gives hilarious deadpan entries in his journal, like this one:

8h05 : J’essaye de rentrer chez moi en traînant des pieds. Ou l’expression (courante) ne correspond pas à la réalité, ou alors il existe une méthode que je ne connais pas pour traîner des deux pieds en même temps. J’essaye de laisser traîner un pied et de faire un saut en avant avec l’autre (pied). Je me retrouve à plat ventre. 8:05: I try to go home, dragging my feet. Either the common expression doesn’t correspond to reality or there is an unknown-to-me method to drag both feet at the same time. I try to drag one foot and to leap with the other at the same time. I end up sprawled on my stomach.

The whole novella is peppered with funny moments like this, the contrast between the action and the serious tone creates a fantastic comical effect. I loved his attempts at hitting on his pretty neighbor or his ideas to get acquainted with his neighbors or his obvious love for human food.

This is a book that we’ll make you laugh and unwind. There’s no artistic purpose to this novella, it’s fun for fun’s sake. In other words, it’s a perfect Beach & Public Transport Book.

 

The Supremes at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat by Edward Kelsey Moore

July 6, 2017 6 comments

The Supremes at Earl’s-All-You-Can-Eat by Edward Kelsey Moore (2013) French title: Les Suprêmes. Translated by Cloé Tralci

They are three. They are black. They are girlfriends. They live in a small town in the south of Indiana. They were in their twenties in the 1960s. They were a team. They were nicknamed The Supremes. Their names are Odette, Clarice and Barbara Jean. They meet every Sunday after church at Earl’s-All-You-Can-Eat dinner. It’s been their spot for ages, they hung out there as giggling teenagers and kept coming with their husbands along the years.

Odette is not a delicate and flushing cattleya. Physically, she’s a chubby woman with wild hair and  an awkward sense of fashion. Mentally, she’s a strong, opinionated and capable woman. She sounded more like a Denise to me. She doesn’t beat around the bush and while it might irritate others, she’s precious for it. Because Odette takes charge. She calls a spade a spade and makes people talk. She states the obvious, meddles if needed and she exposes things. She’s the one who’ll ask the questions nobody dares to ask but need to be asked. She helps people get and sort things out.

Clarice is a piano teacher, one who had a great talent that went to waste when she abandoned her career to get married to Richmond. He dazzled her. He’s a womanizer, a professional flirt and sometimes a boy in a man’s body. And after decades of marriage with him cheating on her, Clarice is still dazzled. She accepts her fate as a scorned woman and lets it slide, even if it hurts a lot. Her attitude is consistent with her education and her childhood. Her father was the same and her mother taught her that the only respectable attitude was to turn a blind eye to it. Her friends know but won’t talk about it.

To me, Barbara Jean was like a black Norma Jean. Too pretty and attractive for her own good. Struggling with a complicated childhood and raised by a mother who was almost a prostitute. She’s the one who married Lester, a much older man. She went for financial and emotional security and with her past, who could blame her? She made her choice and stood by it. She’s the one who had the most tragedies in her life.

As the book progresses, we learn more about their life, present and past. They are ordinary women, none of them is a Helen of Troy, someone men start wars over. They are us, middle-class people with their small lives. They’re in their fifties now. The children are gone, health issues make appearances. These three working women are in a new chapter of their lives.

Through them, Moore portrays the story of the black middle-class. He doesn’t make it about being black but with details here and there, we see the life of black people in this era. You’re white, you don’t work for a black man. You’re a black girl, dating a white guy is so off-limit that it’s impossible to conceive, even in more advanced cities of the North. You’re the first black baby to be born in a hospital, you make the front page of the newspaper. Some neighborhoods are not for you. You might come from a poor background, your black bourgeois mother-in-law-to-be accepts you immediately because the color of your skin is light brown and that’s the criteria that matters the most. Subtle but telling details.

Moore gives us a vivid picture of this small town and this group of friends. The Supremes is about friendship and the things you say and the things you don’t, to keep the peace. It’s about marriage and the things that happen in a couple that are invisible from outside. It’s about the dramas of life, loosing a child, trusting a spouse and being sick. But it’s also about delighting in small daily pleasures and have your friends around when things get tough. The characters are lovely, I wanted to hear about them, to know what would happen to them. They felt like acquaintances.

The Supremes at Earl’s-All-You-Can-Eat is a great book that celebrate friendship and the warmth and the treasure it is in our lives.

The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend by Katarina Bivald

June 14, 2017 14 comments

The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend by Katarina Bivald (2013) French title : La bibliothèque des cœurs cabossés. Translated from the Swedish by Carine Buy.

As mentioned in my previous billet about The Duck Hunt by Hugo Claus, after reading A Cool Million and the said Duck Hunt, I was in dire need of a feel-good novel. So during a visit to a bookstore, I got myself The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend by Katarina Bivald.

The blurb is made for bookworms. Sara Lindqvist is twenty-eight years old and lives in Haninge, a small town in Sweden. She’s a book lover and started a correspondence with Amy, another booklover who lives in Broken Wheel, Iowa. They’ve been discussing books and life for two years when the bookshop where Sara works goes belly up. Amy convinces the now unemployed Sara to come and stay with her for a few weeks. Sara organizes her trip but when she arrives in Broken Wheel, it’s the day of Amy’s funeral. What to do now?

She decides to stay and gets acquainted with the villagers, an odd bunch of people who stayed in their declining hometown. Broken Wheel progressively lost its inhabitants, then its school and the buildings on Main Street have lost their luster. It’s now a sleepy town that will wake up with the arrival of this foreigner who decides to use Amy’s books to set up a bookstore on Main Street. Sara wants to use Amy’s library to convert Broken Wheel to literature.

Ahem.

Lucky me, I read this at a time when my tolerance for approximate prose and clichéd characters was exceptionally high. I’m so tired after work that I welcomed the reprieve. I finished it despite its 500 pages, its nice but unreal characters, the description of corn fields and the tepid plot. It says a lot about my fatigue.

Conclusion: Two years of correspondence between Sara and Amy and yet for me, nothing to write home about. I do enjoy fluffy books from time to time but this one wasn’t good enough. Good fluff is hard to write too.

Other review: Claire from Word by Word read it too and is more positive than I am about it. Her review is here.

My Life as a Penguin by Katarina Mazetti

March 18, 2017 11 comments

My Life as a Penguin by Katarina Mazetti (2008) Not available in English French title: Ma vie de pingouin. Translated from the Swedish by Lena Grumbach.

After finishing A Cool Million by Nathanael West, I was so upset that I needed a fluffy book. Katarina Mazetti is one of my go-to writers when I want nice feel-good novels. I’ve already read The Guy Next Grave or Benny & Shrimp for English readers and its follow-up Family Grave. I’ve even seen the theatre adaptation of Benny & Shrimp. I also indulged in the Linnea Trilogy (Between God and Me, it’s Over; Between the Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf, It’s Over and The End is Only the Beginning) which I didn’t like as much as Benny & Shrimp.

So, after the very depressing Cool Million, My Life as a Penguin seemed a good reading choice, and it was.

My Life as a Penguin starts in the Roissy Charles de Gaulle airport where about fifty Swedish passengers are embarking on a flight to Santiago in Chile where they are to embark on a cruise in Antarctica. Wilma has never really left Sweden and she’s struggling to get to the right gate at the airport. Honestly, anyone who’s ever flown out of this Parisian airport feels her pain. Tomas is already there, brooding but willing to help Wilma. Alba is in her seventies, she’s already travelled a lot and she loves observing humans and animals. Wilma, Tomas and Alba will be our main narrator during the cruise.

All the travelers have a goal with this trip. You’d think the first aim would be to see the world and enjoy nature but no. Wilma sees it as a challenge and we discover why later in the book. Tomas decided for a trip to Antarctica to commit suicide. Alba wants to observe the flora but also the fauna of her fellow travelers. A couple of women are there to catch men. A few men are birdwatchers and really intend to see the local birds in their natural habitat.

You’ll find what you’d expect in a book where people who don’t know each other have to live in close quarters. They observe each other, gossip, interact. Friendships blossom, couples get together. Wilma’s voice is warm and I wanted to find out why she embarked on such a cruise, what her story was. Tomas is depressed because his wife left him and moved out to California with her new husband. With her living so far away with their children, Tomas doesn’t get to see them as much as before and he feels like he has lost his children too. Wilma always sees the glass half full and Tomas always sees it half empty. Their opposite vision of life fuels their interactions. Here’s Tomas thinking about Wilma’s attitude:

Et puis elle a une attitude tellement positive devant tout, c’est merveilleux et risible à la fois! Si Wilma se retrouvait en enfer, elle déclarerait tout de suite qu’elle adore les feux de camp et demanderait au diable s’il n’a pas quelques saucisses à griller. And she has such a positive attitude towards everything; it’s wonderful and at the same time ludicrous. If Wilma ended up in hell, she’d immediately declare that she loves camp fires and would ask the devil if he didn’t have sausages for a barbeque.

Alba is a quirky character; she’s never without her beloved notebook where she gathers her observations of human nature and writes a comparison between people and animals.

I also enjoyed reading about their excursions in Antarctica. The weather was fierce and far from the usual sunny cruise. I liked that Katarina Mazetti didn’t choose a setting in the Caribbean or more plausible for European travelers, a cruise on the Mediterranean Sea. It is a way to avoid clichés and it was welcome.

Katarina Mazetti writes in a light mode, always on a fine line between serious and humorous. Her tone suggests that even if life is tough sometimes, difficulties are better handled with a bit of courage and a healthy sense of humor. Even if it’s not an immortal piece of literature, I was curious about this group’s journey and was looking forward to discovering how the trip would end for all of them. Would it be a life-changing experience or just another holiday?

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson

January 28, 2017 21 comments

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson. (1938) French title: Cette sacrée vertu.

watson_englishI bought Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson after reading Jacqui’s enthusiastic review confirmed by Max’s review, both excellent, as always.

I was drawn to this story of a mousy spinster who gets shaken up in her life after a serendipitous mix up. Miss Pettigrew works as a governess not by choice but out of obligation. She needs to work for a living and it’s the only profession she knows. It’s not a calling and she’s not very skilled at it. With the years, the family she works for are getting worse and she’s been ill-treated by her employers. Miss Pettigrew is poor, she’s lonely and she doesn’t have any other option than taking another job as a governess. The last family you hired her bullied her and she dreads starting anew somewhere else. Her resistance to harship is getting low and her work agency has sent her to an address to start a new position. She feels like she’s going to the gallows.

Outside on the pavement Miss Pettigrew shivered slightly. It was a cold, grey, foggy November day with a drizzle of rain in the air. Her coat, of a nondescript, ugly brown, was not very thick. It was five years old. London traffic roared about her. Pedestrians hastened to reach their destinations and get out of the depressing atmosphere as quickly as possible. Miss Pettigrew joined the throng, a middle-aged, rather angular lady, of medium height, thin through lack of good food, with a timid, defeated expression and terror quite discernible in her eyes, if any one cared to look. But there was no personal friend or relation in the whole world who knew or cared whether Miss Pettigrew was alive or dead.

watson_frenchShe musters the courage to knock at the door of her new employer and she’s immediately welcomed by Miss LaFosse who thinks that Miss Pettigrew is her new maid. They don’t have time to exchange a word before Miss Lafosse begs for Miss Pettigrew’s help. Indeed, Miss Lafosse has a lover at home (Nick) and her other lover (Michael) is coming soon. She wants Miss Pettigrew to make Nick leave before Michael arrives. Without thinking, Miss Pettigrew obeys and successfully pushes Nick out the door. Miss LaFosse is convinced she’s got a new best friend and takes Miss Pettigrew under her wing.

Miss LaFosse is young and pretty. She’s an actress and a flirt. She runs in totally different circles than the ones Miss Pettigrew is used to. Worse than that, she lives a life Miss Pettigrew has been taught to consider sinful and dissipated. But Miss Pettigrew is at the end of her rope, she decides she’s not in a position to judge Miss LaFosse and she quite enjoys the attention she gets from her.

Miss Pettigrew now forgot all about her original errand. For the first time for twenty years some one really wanted her for herself alone, not for her meagre scholarly qualifications. For the first time for twenty years she was herself, a woman, not a paid automaton. She was so intoxicated with pride she would have condoned far worse sins than Miss LaFosse having two young men in love with her. She put it like that. She became at once judicial, admonitory and questioning.

She’s swept off her feet and dizzy with the whirlwind of Miss LaFosse’s love life. And as the day goes on, Miss Pettigrew questions the values she was taught and that she respected all her life. The French title of the book is Cette sacrée vertu, or in English This bloody virtue and it sums it all. What good did it bring her to be good and virtuous? What joy did it bring in her life?

In a dull, miserable existence her one wild extravagance was her weekly orgy at the cinema, where for over two hours she lived in an enchanted world peopled by beautiful women, handsome heroes, fascinating villains, charming employers, and there were no bullying parents, no appalling offspring, to tease, torment, terrify, harry her every waking hour.

Is that all that she can hope for? A life where her only happy place is a two-hour visit to the cinema? She starts thinking that she might deserve more than being a bullied and poor governess. As the story unfolds, we see a character coming out of her safety shell to dare living. This kind of plot could be mawkish but it’s not. It’s served by Watson’s witty prose and she turns this late blooming into a light and bittersweet comedy. Her sense of humour is fantastic, as you can see in these passing lines:

Miss LaFosse sat in front of the mirror in preparation for the greatest rite of all, the face decoration.

Miss Pettigrew, completely submerged in unknown waters, did her best to surmount the waves.

It is also vivid thanks to energetic dialogues that reminded me of vaudeville and comics.

‘???…!!!…???…!!!’exploded Nick again.

Totally Captain Haddock, no?

Reading Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day was a real delight. It’s funny as hell, lovely and still thought-provoking. Of course, there’s the condition of women and the difficulty to work for a living. Miss Pettigrew also shows that living as a saint might be commendable but not that enjoyable and Miss LaFosse demonstrates that living as she wants, duty be damned, is a lot more pleasant and that in the end, it doesn’t hurt anybody.

Kim at Reader Matters, listed Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day in her list of five uplifting reads. I think she’s onto something there.

Highly recommended.

 

 

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