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The Weight of Secrets by Aki Shimazaki – Lovely

February 10, 2019 22 comments

The Weight of Secrets by Aki Shimazaki (1999-2004) Original French title: Le poids des secrets.

Aki Shimazaki was born in 1961 in Japan. She emigrated to Canada in 1981, first living in Vancouver and Toronto before moving to Montreal in 1991. In 1995, she started to learn French and in 1999, she published her first novella. In French, her third language. I’m in awe.

The Weight of Secrets is her debut series and the original title is Le poids des secrets. It is a five-petal flower book. Each novella is a petal and the reader is like a little bee, going from one petal to the other, seeing part of the flower from a character’s point of view at different periods in time. After visiting the five petals, the reader has a global view of the history of two families who seem to live parallel lives but actually have open and hidden interconnections. It is the shared destinies of a woman, Yukiko and Yukio, born in Tokyo in the early 1930s and both living in Nagasaki in 1945 and survivors of the atomic bombing.

Each volume has a Japanese title, a name of flower or of an animal symbolic of this specific view on the story.

The first book is Tsubaki, (camélias/camellias), a flower symbolic of happy times for Yukio and Yukiko.

The second book is Hamaguri, a shellfish with a shell in two halves. It is a children’s game to have a bag of shells and try to find the exact other half to one shell. It is a symbol of a key person missing in the characters’ lives.

The third book is Tsubame (hirondelle/swallow). It is the nickname of a Catholic priest who plays a capital part in the story. He’s a swallow as he’s always dressed in a black-and-white cloth. In French we say that one swallow doesn’t bring back Spring but this man does, he brings life and hope after hard times.

The fourth book is Wasurenagusa (myosotis/forget-me-not). It belongs to Yukio’s father who was in Manchuria during WWII and separated from his family.

The fifth book is Hotaru (lucioles/fireflies), a way to symbolize dangerous attractions.

I’m aware that you still have no clue about the story. The truth is, I don’t want to give details about the characters. All you need to know is that it’s set in Japan, that it involves characters crushed by historical events like the 1923 earthquake in Tokyo and the subsequent massacre of Korean immigrants or the 1945 atomic bombing in Nagasaki. It is about racism against the Korean community and about the Japanese definition of what is proper or not. It tells the impact of customs on individual lives when they cannot meet society’s expectations. It’s the story of two beings who had a special bond, one they didn’t get to explore because their parents kept too many secrets and how they missed out. It’s the stories of two adults who healed each other and had a good life together, despite their own secrets and failures.

We go back and forth in time, we change of narrators and we unravel each character’s reasons to keep something or some part of themselves hidden. We only see people who do as best they can given the circumstances they are in. From one book to the other, we get a clearer picture of the characters’ lives and how some of the secrets get revealed to the next generation and how some die with the person. Each character has something they don’t know about their origins.

It’s written in a simple and lovely language and I wanted to know more after each volume. My favorite volumes were Tsubame and Wasurenagusa. I absolutely loved this series and I highly recommend it. If you pick it up, do not read the blurbs of the books, there are way too many spoilers in them and you want to keep the magic intact.

I don’t know if it’s a Japanese or a Canadian book. I’ve seen it in the Japanese section of my bookstore. I certainly thought it was Japanese until I wondered who was the translator, discovered there was none and started to research Aki Shimazaki. It’s difficult to qualify it. Its language is French but certainly not the French from Québec. Shimazaki’s native language probably left some marks in her way to think and write in French. It’s a Japanese book for its setting, its characters, its themes and its background culture. So, I don’t know, I’ll let you make your own mind about it but I feel privileged. I got to read a Japanese book in my native language.

Now the sad news and the ranting part. Sadly, it’s a Translation Tragedy. It’s published in Québec, it was a great success in the francophone world and it’s easy to read. And yet, it’s not available in English. Is there not an anglophone Canadian publisher to translate it into English? Like for Bonheur d’occasion by Gabrielle Roy, I really don’t understand how it’s possible that such books are not available in the country’s two official languages.

Good thing for readers who speak French, it’s a perfect way to practice reading in French. The books are short, the style is simple (short sentences, no very complicated words) and the story gripping.

Dead Souls by Gogol – Interesting but challenging

January 19, 2019 25 comments

Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol (1842) French title: Les Ames mortes. Translated from the Russian by Ernest Charrière (1859)

Everything about Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol is a challenge. Reading it. Writing about it. To be honest, it was difficult to read and I persevered only because I was curious about what Gogol wanted to demonstrate with this book and because Gogol was one of Romain Gary’s favorite writer. I had already read the short-stories The Overcoat, and The Night Before Christmas.

My colleague in Russia says that Dead Souls is mandatory reading in school, which must be a lot tougher than reading Candide.

As always when I read classics, I’m not going to comment about the book, academics have done it a lot better than me. This is just my response to it and nothing else.

Before going further, a quick word about the “souls” the book title refers to. I’m going to quote Wikipedia instead of poorly paraphrasing them:

In the Russian Empire, before the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, landowners had the right to own serfs to farm their land. Serfs were for most purposes considered the property of the landowner, who could buy, sell or mortgage them, as any other chattel. To count serfs (and people in general), the measure word “soul” was used: e.g., “six souls of serfs”.

Gogol by F.Moller – 1840. From Wikipedia

Dead Souls is the journey of a middle-class Russian crook, Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov. His only goal in life is to get rich to live a comfortable life with good food, fine clothes, refine soap and perfumes. When the book opens, Chichikov arrives in the provincial city of N.N. with his coachman Selifane and his footman Petrushka. He quickly inserts himself in the town’s life, he gets acquainted with all the prominent citizens of the place, small nobility and civil servants.

He makes himself comfortable and decides to visit the country. He goes from one landowner to the other, offering to purchase their dead souls. What’s in it for both parties? The landowner pays taxes on the number of male souls they own. Souls are counted by the Russian government every few years and this count is used as the basis of the tax calculation. So, if a serf dies between two counts, he’s still considered as alive for tax purposes. If the landowner sells their dead souls, they stop paying taxes on them and the new owner pays the taxes. And what about Chichikov? What’s in it for him? Easy! A dead soul who is officially still alive is an asset. An asset can be pledged at the bank in exchange of a loan. For Chichikov, it’s a way to cash loans and have a starting capital to buy land and souls and establish himself as a landowner. (Btw, this is based on a true story and Pushkin suggested this as a plot idea to Gogol.)

In the first part of the book, we follow Chichikov from one estate to the other and meet with various types of landowners: the old widow, the paternalistic one, the philanderer, the miser…It’s didactic, you can see that Gogol wants to show you a typical Russian province. Each landowner has their flaws, their qualities and everything is told with an undercurrent sense of humor, especially at the beginning of the book.

In the second part, Chichikov finally meets a perfect landowner, one who inspires him and makes him want to better himself. He also meets someone who inspires him spiritually. In the middle of bouts of good resolutions, Chichikov is caught up by his scheme and the Russian justice is after him. He manages to dodge the bullet and settles down as a gentleman farmer with wife, children and serfs. His election at a prominent charge in the province he settled in is a farce, one that uncovers the big joke that local election are.

And that’s it for the plot.

Now, my impressions. Don’t forget that I’m French and that I read with my French literary baggage and with my French historical and cultural background.

A political novel

Dead Souls is a political opus disguised in a picaresque novel. The first part is better than the second, in my opinion. I liked the comedy side of the first part and had a hard time with the more sanctimonious side of the second part. At every turn of page, Gogol – who, ironically, wrote most of his novel when he was staying in Europe – denounces the Russian elite’s love for everything foreign. He never misses an opportunity to show that they would be better off without French wine, French cooks, Dutch fabric…

Chichikov doesn’t speak French and that tells a lot about his status. He’s not part of the Russian aristocracy who, at the time, hardly spoke Russian at all. Gogol shows the workings of small-town life, the corruption of the institutions and the collusion among the ruling class. They hold onto each other. They know exactly who misbehaved, who despoiled whom and they just find a way to let it slide.

Gogol criticizes the elite and their behavior, their tendency to look towards Western Europe and mimic London or Paris ways of life instead of being proud of their being Russian. I still find appalling that a part of the Russian aristocracy of the 19th C didn’t even speak Russian.

The author depicts their ridicules, their laziness and their lack of interest in their land. He mocks their incompetence and their quirks. In NN, the governor’s hobby is embroidery!

Dead Souls can easily be instrumentalized by politicians as it suggests to the reader to stop looking West and start leaning on Russian culture, background and strength. It can be borrowed by nationalists if they choose to pick the passages that suit their doctrine.

The serfdom system.

I knew about the law emancipating the serfs and I knew of the concept which, in my mind,  was more attached to the Middle Ages than to slavery. Reading about the transactions, the way Chichikov haggles over the price of dead souls with the owners, it sank in. It’s slavery. Pure and simple. And you need to wait for the last pages of the book for Gogol to openly condemn this system.

Food

I was amazed by all the banquets scenes. If French people are obsessed by food, the Russians in Gogol’s Dead Souls are strong contenders for this title. No wonder Chichikov has a pot belly, he’s always invited to receptions with lots of dishes! Only the Russian ones are mentioned and described. In the election of the local representative at the end of the second part, the quality of the candidate’s cook was part of the pros and cons list made to evaluate the candidate’s worth! Apparently, having a French cook was a bonus.

The tax and administration elements

Before the events told in Dead Souls, Chichikov worked as a custom officer and I was fascinated by the passage about smuggling goods through the border.

The workings of the court in charge of recording transactions regarding properties were fascinating too. Greasing a civil servant’s palm was a local sport, one you needed to know how to play.

The tax on male souls system left me dumfounded. The system is flawed from the start with the mortality rate they had at the time. Tax bases cannot be revised often enough to avoid frauds, especially since it’s based upon declarations and transactions that are recorded at local level by an administration whose officer is elected locally. Everything concurs to have flourishing frauds. I wonder how it was in France at the time. Probably better because that’s one thing we’ve always been good at: collecting taxes. Maybe we should create Tax Officers Without Borders and send the controllers abroad, they’d be occupied elsewhere.

I can’t believe that banks took souls as collateral. Leaving aside the obvious moral issue (which means judging with 21st C eyes what was happening in the 19thC), from a business side, I don’t understand how a soul who could die at anytime could make a sound collateral.

Globalization

We always think that globalization is a thing of our time. It puts things in perspective when Gogol describes how Swiss, French, German or Dutch peddlers made it to Podunk Russia to sell their goods. There were a lot more exchanges in the past than we think.

Theatre, theatrics and comedy.

I’ve read that Gogol wanted to emulate Dante and Homer when he wrote Dead Souls. I can’t comment on that.

It may come from the French translator but some passages sounded a lot like the theatrics in Molière’s plays. The coachman Selifane and the footman Petrushka are comic side-characters and they sound a lot like Sganarelle, one of Molière’s recurring character. There’s also scene in where Chichikov is in prison and pulls his hair out at the thought that the casket where he puts all his papers and money in now in the hands of the gendarmes. He’s out of his mind, behaving wildly like Harpagon, in The Miser by Molière. He laments “ma cassette” (my casket), “ma cassette” all the time and it’s hard not to think of the famous casket scene of The Miser. Maybe the translator emphasized that part for the French reader.

The first chapters of the first part are the rifest with comedy. The book gets darker after that and the moral rant took over. I know that Dead Souls has been made into a play and I can easily imagine it, at least for the first part.

I could go on and on about details that struck me, give you quotes and all but this billet is already long enough. I’m glad I read Dead Souls, even if it wasn’t a walk in the park. Now, I’m tempted to read Charge d’âme by Romain Gary. It’s a novel Gary wrote in 1977, after the 1973 oil crisis. He imagines that someone invented an “advanded fuel” based on capturing dead souls at the moment they leave the body and putting their energy into batteries. The whole humanity is at risk to be considered as cattle. I think it could be interesting to read it in the wake of Dead Souls. (Gogol-ish pun intended)

Heatwave by Jean Vautrin – French Noir

November 27, 2018 4 comments

Heatwave by Jean Vautrin (1982) Not available in English.

Jean Vautrin (1933-2015) was a writer and a scriptwriter. Heatwave was our Book Club pick for November and it was a stark contrast to The Ice Princess, the crime fiction we read the month before.

Heatwave opens on a runaway criminal, Jimmy Cobb who has attacked a bank in Paris. He’s in the Beauce countryside, the agricultural region near Paris. There are large flat fields there and nowhere to hide. The police are after him and he’s digging a hole in a field to hide his loot from the robbery. He’s dressed in an elegant suit and it draws the attention of eleven-years old Chim. He sees him from his hiding place and decides to steal the money and hide it somewhere else.

Chim comes from the Morsang farm, the closest house. That’s where Jimmy Cobb decides to hide when the police’s chopper starts making rounds above his head.

The Morsang farm is the home of a violent and mostly uneducated family. Horace Maltravers married Jessica to take over the farm and its vast estate. His drunkard brother Socrate lives with them. Horace has a grownup daughter from a previous marriage, Ségolène. She’s not right in her head and a total nympho. She keeps assaulting men around her. Jessica had Chim with a seasonal farmhand before her marriage to Horace. Three employees work on the farm, Saïd from Algeria, Soméca Buick from an African country and Gusta Mangetout.

At the Morsang farm, they all have issues, except the employees. Horace is extremely violent and volatile. He hates Chim. Socrate could be sensible if drinking had not changed him into a useless slob. Jessica has locked herself into her housework, bringing cleanliness in the house since she can’t have a safe and sane home. Ségolène is creepy, always trying to corner males employees. They are all horrible in their own way. Horace and Ségolène clearly have mental health problems. Socrate and Jessica try to survive in this environment in their own way. And Chim is damaged for life.

The novel is a man chase, the police being after Cobb and the inhabitants of the farm willing to take advantage of his presence for their personal gain. Will Cobb get out alive of the farm? Will the police catch him or will the Morsang inhabitants get to him first? The whole novel happens in the span of two days.

Heatwave is a polar written in the pure tradition of classic Noir in bad French translations. In the 1950s and 1960s, most of the American crime fiction was published in the famous Série Noire. They were published quickly, translated in a way to respond to the French public, sometimes without much respect for the original text. If passages were too long, they were cut to keep the book within a certain number of pages. Thick argot was used, some of which got old quickly and is incomprehensible today.

Heatwave was written in this Série Noire tradition. It’s a polar à la San Antonio. It’s full of play-on-words, of twisted French and old-fashioned gangster way of speaking. When I started to read it, right after The Emperor’s Tomb I felt disoriented.

Heatwave is written in a style that requires a bit of adjustment from the reader. It’s also a succession of quick vignettes that betray Vautrin’s experience with cinema. It felt stroboscopic. It was like entering a nightclub and needing a moment to adjust to the place, the noise, the dark and the flashing lights. At first, you’re overwhelmed. Then, once you’ve been here for a while, you get used to it and you start seeing details, enjoying the décor and having fun. The reader must reach page 50 to get accustomed to Vautrin’s brand of writing and to start enjoying the atmosphere and the inventive style. It’s better to read Heatwave in a few sittings or the process of adjusting to the ambiance is to be done each time. Among the horrible argot, we can find poetic descriptions of the landscape,

Vingt-deux heures cinq

C’est l’heure des exhalaisons soudaines. Au moindre souffle de la brise, les odeurs voyagent à dos de pollen ou de petit lapin. Chiendent, blé tendre, coquelicots, fleurs neuves, les senteurs de la nuit sortent de terre. Elles remercient le soleil

10 :25 pm

It’s the time for sudden exhalations. With each breath of breeze, scents travels on pollenback or on rabbitback. Couch grass, common wheat, poppies, new flowers, the night’s scent come out of the earth. They are thankful for the sun.

and quirky descriptions.

It’s also extremely violent. Gunshots, torture and violence to women. I was also bothered by the descriptions of Saïd and Soméca Buick, full of clichés coming from colonial France. Maybe it was tolerated in 1982, twenty years after the war in Algeria and decolonization but now, it’s shocking. And I’m happy to be shocked because it means that things have improved.

I thought it was rather unrealistic as far as police procedural is concerned. The GIGN intervenes. They’re Special Operations in the gendarmerie, elite corps who come in touchy situations. They don’t show their face to cameras and don’t give their names. And here, they introduce themselves as country gendarmes do. But I guess accuracy is not the point of the book.

I don’t know what to think about Heatwave. It’s obviously classic noir, written into a tradition. The gangster jargon used here and there felt like a pastiche, a will to follow the Série Noire rules. It is a pity that Vautrin tried too hard to do that because when his own writing dominates, it’s powerful with clear-cut descriptions, sharp portrays and poetic descriptions of the landscapes.

Heatwave is not available in English but it has been made into a film directed by Yves Boisset. The lead actors are Lee Marvin, Miou-Miou, Jean Carmet and Victor Lanoux. I won’t be watching the movie because I have a better tolerance to violence when it’s written than when it’s on film. When I read, I manage to block images from flooding my head, something I can’t do with films.

For foreign readers curious about Vautrin’s style, I would recommend to check out the sample on Amazon, you’ll see what it sounds like.

The Ice Princess by Camilla Läckberg

November 25, 2018 13 comments

Our Book Club had picked The Ice Princess by Camilla Läckberg for October. It’s the first volume of the Erica Falck series. We are in Fjällbacka, during the winter and Alexandra Wijkner was found murdered. She was discovered by Erica Falck, a former classmate who is back in her hometown to tidy her childhood home after her parents were killed in an accident. Erica is a writer of biographies. She’s on a deadline to finish her book and working in Fjällbacka, far from the distractions of Stockholm works for her. She doesn’t have any family left there, her only sister lives in Stockholm too.

The plot centers around the personality of the victim, her loveless marriage to Karl Erik, her relationship with her parents and the strange events that happened in her early teenage years. Erica and Alexandra were best friends until her family suddenly moved out without telling goodbye to anyone. Has Alexandra’s murder anything to do with her past and how is the powerful Lorentz family involved in this story? That’s the murder plot.

The police in charge of the investigation is led by an insufferable chief called Bertil Mellberg and the inspector actually doing the ground work is Patrik Hedström, also a former schoolmate of Erica’s. He used to have a huge crush on her when they were younger.

Erica gets involved in the investigation, while finishing her book, starting to write a new one about Alexandra’s murder and dealing with her sister’s problems and her terrible brother-in-law. Meanwhile, Patrik and Erica get reacquainted and their relationship hops on an uncontrollable sleigh of soppiness, with fluttering hearts, ovaries in overdrive and cooking-is-the-way-to-a-man’s-heart seduction moves.

I found the story easy to read, not very original but entertaining even if I have guessed a key element in the mystery. And believe me, this is not a good sign because I never try to solve the murder when I read crime fiction, I have more fun enjoying the ride. The mystery part was OK but déjà vu, in my opinion.

The other elements around the investigation have been done before too. Erica’s sister is victim of domestic violence and the romance is too cheesy for my tastes. I guess it’s so successful because you can relate to Erica who is an average citizen. The only fun character is the awful chief of police. For the rest, I had the feeling that it lacked characterization and that the plot was too weak. It doesn’t compare well to other series like the ones written by Anne Perry, Louise Penny or Fred Vargas.

I’d say it’s good for a train journey or a plane trip but nothing to write home about.

Now a word about the French translation. I thought it was weird. Sometimes the syntax leaped out of the page. But what surprised me most were old-fashioned expressions like se lever à l’heure du laitier (to get up with the milkman), the use of baise-en-ville to describe the overnight bag Erica takes for her date with Patrik. tata instead of tatie (auntie), casse-croûte instead of sandwich. The translators are Lena Grumbach and Marc de Gouvernain. I’ve already read translations by Lena Grumbach since she also translates Katarina Mazetti but I never noticed anything about her translations, so I wonder if this old-fashioned vocabulary was in the original. Strange.

Small Country by Gaël Faye – Highly recommended

November 4, 2018 15 comments

Small Country by Gaël Faye (2016) Original French title: Petit Pays.

J’ai beau chercher, je ne me souviens pas du moment où l’on s’est mis à penser différemment. A considérer que, dorénavant, il y aurait nous d’un côté et, de l’autre, des ennemis comme Francis. J’ai beau retourner mes souvenirs dans tous les sens, je ne parviens pas à me rappeler clairement l’instant où nous avons décidé de ne plus nous contenter de partager le peu que nous avions et de cesser d’avoir confiance, de voir l’autre comme un danger, de créer cette frontière invisible avec le monde extérieur en faisant de notre quartier et de notre impasse un enclos.

Je me demande encore quand les copains et moi, nous avons commencé à avoir peur.

Despite my best efforts, I can’t remember when we started to think differently. To consider that from now on, we would be on one side and on the other side would be enemies like Francis. I keep hunting high and low in my memories, I can’t remember clearly the moment when we decided to be no longer content to share the few things we had, when we stopped trusting each other and started seeing the other as a threat or when we created this invisible border with the outside world transforming our cul-de-sac and our neighborhood into a paddock

I still wonder when my friends and I started to be afraid.

I have read Small Country by Gaël Faye in *embarrassed cough* June. This billet is beyond late and the temptation to just let it go and not write about this novel was strong. But Small Country deserves better than my laziness and most of all, it deserves to be talked about and widely read.

The narrator of the earlier quote is Gabriel. Now an adult, he recollects his childhood in Burundi and how his life was turned upside down in 1993 by the civil war between Hutus and Tutsis, resulting in mass killings of Tutsis.

For Gabriel, two major events happened at the same time, shattering his innocence and putting an end to his carefree childhood. First, his parents separated. His father is French and his mother Rwandan. They were probably an ill-matched couple and their love story ended with a separation. Then History in-the-making came around the corner and trampled everything with its dirty boots.

Now living in France, Gabriel tells us about his childhood, his last months in Burundi and the coming of the civil war. He resurrects for us his games with his friends, his relationship with his sister Ana, a visit to relatives in Rwanda and he tries to picture the atmosphere of these terrible times where everyone had to pick a side. His mother is from Rwanda and she’s a refugee in Burundi. Her family is still in Rwanda and the ethnic cleansing in Rwanda happened at the same time as the civil war in Burundi. Gabriel’s family is doubly concerned albeit safer than the average Burundian thanks to his father being French.

Adult Gabriel realized that he has gaps in his memories, that he blocked out the terrible three months of the ethnic cleansing:

Au Rwanda, cette chose qui n’était pas la guerre dura trois longs mois. Je ne me souviens plus de ce que nous avons fait pendant cette période. Je ne me souviens ni de l’école, ni des copains, ni de notre quotidien. A la maison, nous étions de nouveau tous les quatre, mais un immense trou noir nous a engloutis, nous et notre mémoire. D’avril à juillet 1994, nous avons vécu le génocide qui se perpétrait au Rwanda à distance, entre quatre murs, à côté d’un téléphone et d’un poste de radio.

In Rwanda, this thing that was not a war lasted three months. I don’t remember what we did during that time. I don’t remember about school, my friends or our quotidian. At home, we were four again [his mother has come back, due to the events] but a huge black hole has swallowed us. Us and our memory. From April to July 1994, we have lived through the ongoing genocide in Rwanda from afar, between four walls, beside a telephone and a radio set.

He has the memories of a child and what helped him through these terrible times was their neighbor’s library. She started to lend him books and he used them as an escaping device, a way to forget his daily life.

Grâce à mes lectures, j’avais aboli les limites de l’impasse, je respirais à nouveau, le monde s’étendait plus loin, au-delà des clôtures qui nous recroquevillaient sur nous-mêmes et sur nos peurs. Thanks to my readings, I had knocked down the limits of our cul-de-sac. I could breathe again. The world went beyond the fences that had us curled up with our fears.  

Literature as a safe haven…

Despite the horrifying context, Small Country is not bleak because Gaël Faye describes the life in the cul-de-sac, the neighbours, the parties and the games with his friends. He takes us with him to his childhood’s world and evokes the smells, the food, the fruits and the rhythm of everyday life.

Rien n’est plus doux que ce moment où le soleil décline derrière la crête des montagnes. Le crépuscule apporte la fraîcheur du soir et des lumières chaudes qui évoluent à chaque minute. A cette heure-ci, le rythme change. Les gens rentrent tranquillement du travail, les gardiens de nuit prennent leur service, les voisins s’installent devant leur portail. C’est le silence avant l’arrivée des crapauds et des criquets. Souvent le moment idéal pour une partie de football, pour s’asseoir avec un ami sur le muret au-dessus du caniveau, écouter la radio l’oreille collée au poste ou rendre visite à un voisin. Nothing is sweeter than this moment when the sun sets behind the mountains. Twilight brings coolness and warm lights change from one minute to the next. At this hour, the rhythm of life changes. People quietly come back from work, night watchmen start their shifts, neighbors settle in front of their houses. It’s the silent moment before the toads and crickets arrive. Often, it’s the ideal moment for a football game, to sit with a friend on the low wall above the gutter, to listen to music with your ear glued to the radio set or to visit a neighbor.

He shows us the beauty of Burundi and the happy memories. It’s told from the view point of a child who doesn’t quite grasp the madness of the adults and the complexity of racial feuds.

Gaël Faye is a poet, a hip-hop and rap singer and a writer. Small Country is his debut novel and it won the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens, the Goncourt given by high school students and it’s well-deserved.

Gaël Faye fled from Rwanda with his family when he was 13 and Small Country comes from his own experience, which increases the emotional bond the reader forms with Gabriel.

Highly recommended.

PS: The clumsy translations are all mine.

His Kingdom by Han Han – caustic Chinese lit

October 18, 2018 8 comments

His Kingdom by Han Han (2015) French title: Son royaume. Translated from the Chinese by Stéphane Lévêque.

This year our Book Club has decided to expand its horizon and read foreign fiction from countries we rarely read from. The first book meeting these new criteria is His Kingdomn, a contemporary book written in 2015 by Han Han, a famous Chinese blogger/author/rally racer. Yes, he’s all that and he was only born in 1982.

We are in Tinglin, a little fictional town in the South East of China. Zu Xialong works as a groundskeeper and has a lot of free time. What he loves most is to drive around Tinglin at high speed on his Japanese moto. He’s young, single and has yet to lose his virginity because each time he’s close to sealing the deal, his partner has her period. He has a crush on Ying with the sultry voice and bad reputation but he only catches the attention of the young Niba, a highschool student who’s been infatuated with him for a while. This is Xialong in a nutshell.

We follow Xialong in his wanderings around Tinglin, his interactions with Niba and Ying and his various small rebellious acts. His various trips in the city are an opportunity for Han Han to describe and make fun of the Tinglin life. It’s a town probably modeled on existing Chinese small provincial towns.

The officials from the Party who run Tinglin have authorized big corporations to come and set up huge factories. As a consequence, the city attracts lots of workers from other areas of China, suffers from pollution and is overcrowded with infrastructures that are not ready for so many inhabitants. The locals become landlords to the newcomers and the economy of the area goes upside down.

Han Han’s descriptions of wild industrialization are often comical and full of humor. See what happens at the end of the working day:

C’est une route nationale mais il y a tellement d’usines implantées dans le coin qu’elle est remplie de piétons à la sortie du travail. La police de la route a été obligée de mettre en place une déviation à cette heure-là, ce qui fait de cette route la seule nationale de Chine dont une section a été transformée en rue piétonne. It’s a main road but there are so many factories settled in the area that it is full of pedestrians after work. The traffic police had to arrange a detour at this hour and now this road is the only main road in China with a pedestrian section.

The pollution resulting from the factories is part of Tinglin, a price to pay to the god of economic development. It becomes a permanent fixture, it’s in the landscape and Han Han points out how the inhabitants are so used to it that they embrace it.

La lumière du crépuscule est magnifique, le ciel rougi par la pollution a des reflets pourpres, il souffle une petite brise acide. The light at sunset is beautiful. The sky turning red because of the pollution has crimson glints. A slight acid wind is softly blowing.

Poetic descriptions of the landscape are just another way to mock the good people of Tinglin. Critical minds are not a blossoming species in this town.

Xialong is a rather pathetic character, full of dreams but riding on an empty tank when it comes to make his dreams come true. He’s still a rebel to the general atmosphere of obeying blindly to the Party, bowing in front of apparatchiks and buying all the official speeches.

Sometimes he seems lazy but he’s ready to work his butt off to earn extra-money and repair his precious bike. He takes a second job in a thermometer factory, at the end of production line. He’s quality control and has to check that all the thermometers ready to be shipped actually show 37°C when used in live conditions.

Basically, Xialong tests the thermometers on himself, a job he can only perform well if he doesn’t run a fever. Han Han explains how Xiaolong improves his productivity by putting as many thermometers as he can in his body at the same time, even wishing to be a woman, you know, for the extra hole. Han Han’s dry wit makes fun of Xialong’s inventiveness to improve his job performance.

Pour son travail, il enfile son jean devant derrière, la fermeture éclair côté fesses afin de pouvoir plus facilement se fourrer les thermomètres dans le cul. When he goes to work, he slips into his jeans with the zipper on his backside in order to have a better access to stick the thermometers in his ass.

Han Han selected the most ridiculous job for Xiaolong, only to enforce the comic effects and still denounce the stupid work cadences.

Han Han also picks on Party officials and their ludicrous policies to promote culture and encourage companies to build factories in their town. I wonder how he’s allowed to write such an abrasive caricature of local politics. He mocks the empty and long speeches that they deliver.

On ne peut imaginer tirade plus creuse que celle du secrétaire du Parti, au point que l’on pourrait supprimer des passages entiers sans altérer le sens de l’ensemble. One cannot imagine more boring monologues than the Party secretary’s. Whole passages could be cut out without altering the global meaning of the speech.

There are hilarious passages about the codes to respect for speeches. Some stylistic devices are a must in every speech. They are expected, weighed, compared and officials observe each other and take notes of fellow speakers’ achievements.

Mais un fonctionnaire qui entend quelqu’un utiliser une formule de rhétorique est pareil à un toxicomane profond qui en voit un autre sniffer un rail. A civil servant who hears someone use a rhetorical phrase is like a full-in junkie who sees another junkie blowing coke.

I could go on with other excerpts of Han Han’s caustic writing. I enjoyed my time with Xialong, even if he really sounds like a useless bum. Han Han’s style isn’t extraordinary but who knows how many innuendos and puns are lot in translation.

I liked his caricature of small-town China and his critical vision of high speed economic development. Some elements are dystopian or even fantasy, like in Murakami’s Kakfa On the Shore. I was happy to read a Chinese book that was not a historical novel set during the Empire or another opus about the Cultural Revolution.

It was a good pick for me, I enjoyed his brand of humor.

The Easter Parade by Richard Yates

October 7, 2018 23 comments

The Easter Parade by Richard Yates. (1976) French title: Easter Parade. 

Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life, and looking back it always seemed that the trouble began with their parents’ divorce.

If you had any hope to have Richard Yates cheer you up with his Easter Parade, he crushes it with the first sentence of his novel. The said Grimes sisters are Sarah and Emily. After they parents got divorced, they went to live with their mother Esther and only met their father on weekends. The Easter Parade feels like a long-term documentary about the destiny of two sisters raised by parents who failed them.

Their father is a ghost figure working in a small position at a newspaper, a job he puffs up in order to look better in the eyes of his daughters. Their mother doesn’t do motherly and thinks she belongs to a better social class that the one she belongs to.

Esther Grimes, or Pookie, was a small, active woman whose life seemed pledged to achieving and sustaining an elusive quality she called “flair.”

Her nickname gives her away. She yearns for style and class but doesn’t have it. This means that the girls are raised by a delusional woman who has a deceptive idea of their place in the world. Pookie lives in a world where fish need bicycles; in other words, her daughters need to get married. She pushes them in this direction, as would have done any other mother of that time.

It’s exactly what Sarah does, marrying a dashing young neighbor and settling into an unhappy marriage. We’ll follow her grim life over the decades, mostly through Emily’s eyes. Yates pays more attention to Emily. She’s brilliant enough to get into Barnard College on a scholarship. She doesn’t settle down with a man, working in an office in Manhattan and going from one failed liaison to the other.

As mentioned before, neither of them finds happiness.

This is where writing a billet months after reading a book becomes handy. A couple of months after The Easter Parade, I read I, For Isobel by Amy Witting.

And it struck me that Emily and Isobel’s stories have lots in common. Both have been raised by a mother who first wore the trousers in their marriage and then had to raise their children on their own. Both Isobel and Emily have a sister they love but have no affinity with. They work in an office and on their own in the city. They love to read and have intellectual abilities that single them out in their families.

One distressing thing Emily learned in college was to feel more intelligent than her sister. She had felt more intelligent than her mother for years, but that was different; when it happened with Sarah she felt she had betrayed a trust.

I think Isobel felt more intelligent than her mother and sister as well and that her mother knew it. It fueled her resentment towards her daughter. Pookie just knew she didn’t understand Emily. Isobel and Emily are bright and they have an intelligence that doesn’t agree well with the average fate of women in their social class. They cannot be satisfied with what’s ahead of them.

Isobel and Emily aren’t interested in a career as a housewife. They’re not ready to get married, raise kids and be their husband’s sidekick. They have this intellectual side, this interest in books that opened the doors to another world, a world of knowledge. It’s what happens to Isobel when she meets a group of students at a café and this is how Emily feels at Barnard:

School was the center of her life. She had never heard the word “intellectual” used as a noun before she went to Barnard, and she took it to heart. It was a brave noun, a proud noun, a noun suggesting lifelong dedication to lofty things and a cool disdain for the commonplace. An intellectual might lose her virginity to a soldier in the park, but she could learn to look back on it with wry, amused detachment.

They have higher expectations than their sisters because their intelligence tells them that there’s more to life than being a wife and a mother. And in their time and in their social class, it was usually impossible to have a career, be married and have children. And as a consequence, they have to choose and their choice is their freedom and they’re like fish out of water in their social class.

The most striking difference between the two stories is the ending. There’s hope for Isobel but not for Sarah. I, For Isobel was written by a woman who started to write later in life and there’s probably a lot of her personal experience in Isobel. She’s gentle with her character.

I disliked how Yates ended The Easter Parade for Emily, for me it was a letdown. And I couldn’t help wondering if being a man made him write such an ending. It felt like a cliché to warn women who dare to go out of the traditional way. ‘See what happens when you try to live like a man’.

If you’ve read The Easter Parade, how did you feel about it and the ending in particular?

There are a lot of things to explore in this short novel. It questions happiness, how to recognize it, how fleeting it is, like a parade. It also tells us how parents influence their children with their behavior, their vision of life. Sarah and Emily had flawed parents who were unhappy with their life, for different reasons. Even if it’s true because our parents shape us, we are not doomed to replay the same mistakes than our parents or be unhappy because of bad wiring in our childhood. I am more optimistic than that or maybe I want to be because I don’t want to think of the unintentional baggage I’m loading my children with.

My billet is long enough, I won’t spend too much time on raving about Yates’s style. It’s terrific, exactly the kind of writing I love. With a few strokes of his brush, you can see a character, like here: His wife Edna was pleasant and plump and drank a good deal of sherry. It’s also very visual and I couldn’t help thinking about Edward Hopper’s paintings when I read this description:

So they went to the main house without her. It was built of white clapboard too, and it was long and ugly—three stories high in some places and two in others, with black-roofed gables jutting into the trees. The first thing that hit you when you went inside was the smell of mildew. It seeped from the brown oil paintings in the vestibule, from the creaking floor and carpets and walls and gaunt furniture of the long, dark living room.

The bittersweet tone of the book, the clever picture of an era through the lives of two sisters all wrapped in a precise literary style make of The Easter Parade a highly recommended book.

For another vision of The Easter Parade, see Jacqui’s review here and Max’s review here.

PS: Once again, I’ll call a book cover a disaster. It’s more Angela’s Ashes than The Easter Parade.

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