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Slaves by Kangni Alem – Disappointing.

November 24, 2019 2 comments

Slaves by Kangni Alem Original French title: Esclaves Not available in English.

Slaves is a historical novel by the Togolese writer Kangni Alem. It relates the story of the slave trade in the 19th century on the Slave Coast of West Africa. After a quick foreword, the book starts in 1818 when the king of Dahomey Adandozan is deposed and his rival becomes the King Guézo (1818-1858). Adandozan was trying to oppose to the slave trade. Guézo has an alliance with the Portuguese governor Francisco Felix de Souza and their only aim is to get rich. They sell slaves to Brazilian landowners to have free workers on their plantations.

The master of rituals Sakpatê unwillingly participates to Adandozan’s dismissal. He is seen as unreliable and his wives and children are sent to plantations in Cuba.

He is sent to Recife in Brazil where he is renamed Miguel. There, he becomes a Muslim under the patronage of another slave and chooses the name Sule. He learns how to read and write.

After a slave upheaval in the plantation, he is sold to another master in Salvador de Bahia. He becomes a respected house slave but he keeps a distant relationship with a man who intends to lead a slave rebellion and take the power in Bahia. The plot is revealed and the repression is bloody. Sule is sent back to Africa and he chooses to go back to the city where Adandozan is said to be buried.

Kangni Alem writes this novel with a purpose: he wants to confront the hypocrisy of the Europeans who benefited from the slave trade and of the African powers of the time who got rich by selling their people or war prisoners. Neither of them can reject the responsibility of slavery to the other’s face. They are accomplices and they knew what they were doing.

I enjoyed the historical side of the book. It is something I was vaguely aware of but I never took time to dig further. I wasn’t so engaged with the Sakpatê/Miguel/Sule, though, probably because the structure of the book felt stuffy and artificial.

The prologue was set in 1841 and it was about a ship leaving England to Sydney, a vessel that was used to transport slaves to Brazil. It is said to be cursed and indeed, it is mysteriously shipwrecked in the Sydney Bay. The rest of the story is split in small chapters with titles similar to the ones you may find in 19th century literature. It fit with the times of the novel but it felt artificial.

The prologue made me suspicious about the book because I suspected anachronisms. One character alludes to the Loch Ness monster, something that became popular in the 1930s. Another mentions Texas as being part of the USA but in 1841, Texas was a Republic. A character hates Lincoln for his abolitionist views. I’m not a specialist of US history but I’m not sure that Lincoln was a famous abolitionist in 1841.

And then there were typos – irritating but it can happen – and grammar mistakes—unforgivable—the worst one being ‘Il surviva’, which is as bad as writing ‘He stealed’ instead of ‘he stole’.

All this went in the way of my reading and while the substance of the book was interesting and pushed me to read a bit about the Kingdom of Dahomey, the form got in the way of its message. Or it belongs to another literary culture and I read it with my biased Western eyes and I’m totally unfair to this novel because I missed the point.

The Good Lord Bird by James McBride – Historical, fun and thoughtprovoking

October 31, 2019 5 comments

The Good Lord Bird by James McBride (2013) French title: L’oiseau du Bon Dieu. Translated by François Happe

The Good Lord Bird by James McBride relates the story of John Brown (1800-1859), an American abolitionist who was in favor of armed insurrection to abolish slavery. He’s responsible for the Pottawatomi Massacre in 1856 (Kansas) where his group killed five supporters of slavery. He took part in other battles and his last one was a raid against the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. According to historians, Brown’s campaign and its press coverage were one of the sparks that kindled the Civil War.

The God Lord Bird relates Brown’s story from the moment he arrived in Kansas to the fiasco of Harpers Ferry. (Btw, this is also the story of Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks.) The narrator is The Onion, a young black boy who was kidnapped by Brown when he arrived in Kansas. Kidnapped is a neutral word here, because, depending on which side of slavery you stand, Henry was either “stolen” or “freed”.

This kidnapping happens at the beginning of the novel and McBride introduced an comic effect: Brown (The Old Man) thinks Henry is a girl.

“We have to move. Courageous friend, I will take you and your Henrietta to safety.” See, my true name is Henry Shackleford. But the Old Man heard Pa say “Henry ain’t a,” and took it to be “Henrietta,” which is how the Old Man’s mind worked. Whatever he believed, he believed. It didn’t matter to him whether it was really true or not. He just changed the truth till it fit him. He was a real white man. “

Minding only of his safety, Henry decides to go with the flow and be a girl if need be. He becomes Henrietta, nicknamed The Onion. Henry is our only narrator and of course, he’s unreliable. He’s about 10 when Brown takes him. His only experience with life is living in his master’s saloon with his father. He has no education, a limited vision of the world. But he tells the story from the slave’s standpoint and it’s a way for McBride to give a voice to the people Brown fought for.

We follow Onion from 1856 to 1859, during his nomadic life with Brown and some years in New Orleans. The Good Lord Bird is a multilayered book, tackling the historical aspects of Brown’s combat, Henry’s identity problems since he’s impersonating a girl, the issue of slavery and its impact on the psyche of black people.

I had never heard of John Brown before opening The Good Lord Bird on my kindle. This is one of our Book Club reads, I didn’t really investigate what it was about. Kindle book means no physical book and no glance at the blurb on the back cover. There’s no foreword, which doesn’t matter because I never read them before finishing a book as they tend to be full of spoilers. This explains why it took me getting to half of the book, when Brown meets Frederick Douglass to even think that this crazy religious Brown guy was real and that I was reading historical fiction.

John Brown is a controversial character and McBride depicts a complicated man, a zealot and a humanist, a violent man ready to sacrifice everything to his cause and yet be gentle with his family, a man who can camp in the harsh conditions of the west and hold his own in the salons of the east.

Brown’s drive comes from religious grounds. He’s a Christian zealot and his interpretation of the Bible tells him that black people should be free, that slavery is condemnable and should be abolished at all cost. He doesn’t do it for himself but because he thinks it’s right. There’s no personal gain for him in this combat, no political aim, no financial gain of any kind. He fights with words, like here:

I never knowed a man who could spout the Bible off better than Old John Brown. The Old Man straightened up, reared back, and throwed off half a dozen Bible verses right in the Reverend’s face, and when the Reverend tried to back-fire with a couple of his own, the Old Man drowned him out with half dozen more that was better than the first. Just mowed him down. The Rev was outgunned.

But doesn’t neglect more material weapons:

He had more weapons hanging off him than I ever seen one man carry: two heavy seven-shot pistols strapped to his thighs by leather—that was the first I ever saw such a thing. Plus a broadsword, a squirrel gun, a buckshot rifle, a buck knife, and a Sharps rifle. When he moved around, he rattled like a hardware store. He was an altogether fearsome sight.

In passing, enjoy McBride’s playful tone in his descriptions. Henry retells long prayer sessions before battles, when the men wait Brown out because when he starts preaching, there’s no stopping him or knowing when it will end. He’s passionate and gets carried away. He has absolutely no military planning skills. He can lead his men on the battlefield but he’s unable to manage the rest: food, camp, where to stop and when to go, taking weather conditions into consideration and having proper intelligence. And arriving to battle with an army in good conditions is a key success factor.

He’s also an idealist who doesn’t have field knowledge of the slaves’ mind and condition. He’s never lived in the South, he’s certain that slaves will rally his cause quickly because, who wouldn’t want to fight for their freedom, right? He has no clue about the mental barriers that decades of slavery have built in slaves’ minds. They are built out of fear, abuse and being somebody’s property.

Being a Negro means showing your best face to the white man every day. You know his wants, his needs, and watch him proper. But he don’t know your wants. He don’t know your needs or feelings or what’s inside you, for you ain’t equal to him in no measure. You just a nigger to him. A thing: like a dog or a shovel or a horse. Your needs and wants got no track, whether you is a girl or a boy, a woman or a man, or shy, or fat, or don’t eat biscuits, or can’t suffer the change of weather easily. What difference do it make? None to him, for you is living on the bottom rail.

Rallying to Brown is a huge risk. This is also why Henry doesn’t protest when Brown takes him for a girl. He keeps the lie alive even if he could easily prove otherwise. He thinks he’ll be safer as a girl.

I come to enjoy them talks, for even though I’d gotten used to living a lie—being a girl—it come to me this way: Being a Negro’s a lie, anyway. Nobody sees the real you. Nobody knows who you are inside. You just judged on what you are on the outside whatever your color. Mulatto, colored, black, it don’t matter. You just a Negro to the world.

He even enjoys some aspects of impersonating a girl: he doesn’t have to fight on the battle field, he only has ‘light’ chores to do and his condition protects him sometimes. People treat women differently, obviously. He experiences from inside how people treat you differently if they take you for a girl.

On the trail, Chase did all the talking. He talked about his Ma. Talked about his Pa. Talked about his kids. His wife was half cousin to his Pa and he talked about that. There weren’t nothing about himself he didn’t seem to want to talk about, which gived me another lesson on being a girl. Men will spill their guts about horses and their new boots and their dreams to a woman. But if you put ’em in a room and turn ’em loose on themselves, it’s all guns, spit, and tobacco.

In the end, it’s all about people’s preconceived notion about who you are according to the tag that is attached to your person. People see you as a woman, they treat you a certain way. People see you as a slave, they treat you another way. Onion will impersonate a woman during 17 years and then adolescence kicks in, it complicates his life. He’s attracted to women and cannot show or act on it. White people still don’t notice that he’s not a female, confirming that for them, blacks are all the same. Black people notice it right away and it’s harder for him to keep the lie with them.

The Good Lord Bird is an interesting book in many aspects and Henry’s voice is genuine, full of humor. He takes us among Brown’s followers and America in the 1850s comes to life under McBride’s pen. Henry made me laugh with his quirky ways. But sometimes I thought that the descriptions of their travelling were too long, too precise, even if they help today’s reader understand what it was to live in Kansas in that time. Just for the fun of it, this is what 1850s GPS was like:

“Circle ’round the cabin and move straight back into the woods, past the second birch tree beyond the corn field yonder,” he said. “You’ll find an old whiskey bottle stuck between two low branches on that tree. Follow the mouth of that bottle due north two miles, just the way the mouth is pointed. Keep the sun on your left shoulder. You’ll run into an old rock wall somebody built and left behind. Follow that wall to a camp.

Given my sense of direction, I’d have died the first time I went out alone, with this kind of instructions.

I really enjoyed Henry’s spoken tone because it sounded more genuine. I toyed with the idea of reading Cloudsplitters right after The Good Lord Bird, as I have it on the TBR. I flipped through the first pages, discovered that the story was told from Owen’s POV (Brown’s son) in a perfect English and it sounded fake after Henry. I’ll read it later, after McBride’s book has faded away in my memory.

My last question is ‘what does McBride think of John Brown’? I think he tried to show his good and bad sides but that in the end, he is grateful for this idealist and his fight. Brown is the Good Lord Bird of the title.

He reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a Good Lord Bird feather. “The Good Lord Bird don’t run in a flock. He flies alone. You know why? He’s searching. Looking for the right tree. And when he sees that tree, that dead tree that’s taking all the nutrition and good things from the forest floor. He goes out and he gnaws at it, and he gnaws at it till that thing gets tired and falls down. And the dirt from it raises the other trees. It gives them good things to eat. It makes ’em strong. Gives ’em life. And the circle goes ’round.”

Address Unknown by K. Kressman Taylor – Brilliant

October 21, 2019 20 comments

Address Unknown by Kathrine Kressman Taylor. (1939) French title: Inconnu à cette adresse. Translator : No mentioned. (Grrr…)

Address Unknown by Kathrine Kressman Taylor is a slim epistolary novella. It is the correspondence between two friends, Max and Martin who are art traders and own a gallery together in America. They start writing to each other when Martin moves back to Germany with his wife in 1932.

Max is Jewish and their relationship gets strained when the Nazis take power in Germany. They slowly grow apart as Martin is swept over by the dictatorship in his country.

In a few exchange of letters from 1932 to 1934, Kathrine Kressman Taylor shows how things drift away, one small event after the other and how someone slowly turns his back to who he was as the politics around him indoctrinate him.

She demonstrates how a lethal ideology takes over the mind of a normal man, how he can be led to the unthinkable and how hard it is for a friend to witness this transformation.

This is a powerful read, wrapped up in a seemingly innocent correspondence but it says it all. Step by step, that’s how ordinary people got sucked into the horror. It was published in 1939. It was a warning to the world.

Highly recommended, especially to adolescents.

The Rhône River Murders by Coline Gatel – French CSI in 1897

July 7, 2019 17 comments

The Rhône River Murders by Coline Gatel (2019) Original French title: Les suppliciées du Rhône.

I am forever late with my billets this year and I was tempted to write a crime fiction post about The Rhône River Murders by Coline Gatel, Black Run by Antonio Manzini and The Black Echo by Michael Connelly. But I’m always reluctant to mix several books in a billet, even if I enjoy other bloggers’ omnibus reviews.

The Rhône River Murders is Coline Gatel’s debut novel. It’s not available in English but it’s an easy read for a foreigner who understands French. Coline Gatel was invited at Quais du Polar and participated to a panel with Fabrice Cotelle, the head of the French CSI. This talk about the early days of criminology was fascinating and I wrote about it here.

After attending this conference, I purchased and got signed Coline Gatel’s crime fiction book, set in Lyon in 1897. Young women are murdered in the city, pregnant and most probably after visiting a faiseuse d’ange, a backstreet abortionist. (The French term is more poetic for such a bleak business, it means angel maker.)

At the time, Alexandre Lacassagne is a pioneer in forensic medicine and criminology. He’s convinced that autopsies are a way to gather clues about the cause of death. He instigated techniques to find material clues on the corpses and on the crime scene. Lacassagne is one of the fathers of CSI but he was also interested in sociology and psychology, linking them with scientific investigation methods.

While the police remain incompetent and absent, Lacassagne asks his best student Félicien Perrier to investigate the case. He will work on it with his roommate Bernard and a young journalist, Irina Bergovski, an emigrant from Poland.

Coline Gatel takes us to the Lyon of that time and for those who know the city, it’s a nice journey into the past. We see Lacassagne teaching at the Lyon Faculty at the Hôtel Dieu. We enter the opium salons of the city, something I wasn’t aware of. We see the hospices and the streets. We learn about early criminology and that the morgue was actually on a boat on the Rhône River. Coline Gatel peppers her book with anecdotes and trivia. This is where I learnt that in the 19thC, women couldn’t wear pants unless they had a special police authorization to do so. Without the appropriate pass, women could be arrested for wearing pants. Unbelievable.

I’m a good public for this type of books because I love hearing about everyday life in previous centuries. (I had a great time with What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew: From Fox Hunting to Whist—the Facts of Daily Life in 19th-Century England by Daniel Pool) And I enjoyed reading about Lacassagne who is now more than an avenue name to me.

The plot was well drawn, I kept reading, I was eager to know the ending. It had an unexpected turn in the end, one I didn’t see coming. The Rhône River Murders is a pleasant read, a nice way to dive into the Lyon of the Belle Epoque with a gripping murder story.

A perfect holiday read.

An Open Wound by Patrick Pécherot – About the Paris Commune of 1871

December 30, 2018 25 comments

An Open Wound by Patrick Pécherot (2015) Original French title: Une plaie ouverte.

*Sigh* A missed opportunity, that’s what An Open Wound is. Patrick Pécherot supposedly wrote historical crime fiction here. The setting is Paris, back and forth between the Paris Commune of 1871 and 1905. Here’s what Wikipedia sums up about the Paris Commune:

The Paris Commune was a radical socialist and revolutionary government that ruled Paris from 18 March to 28 May 1871. The Franco-Prussian War had led to the capture of Emperor Napoleon III in September 1870, the collapse of the Second French Empire, and the beginning of the Third Republic. Because Paris was under siege for four months, the Third Republic moved its capital to Tours. A hotbed of working-class radicalism, Paris was primarily defended during this time by the often politicised and radical troops of the National Guard rather than regular Army troops. Paris surrendered to the Prussians on 28 January 1871, and in February Adolphe Thiers, the new chief executive of the French national government, signed an armistice with Prussia that disarmed the Army but not the National Guard.

On 18 March, soldiers of the Commune’s National Guard killed two French army generals, and the Commune refused to accept the authority of the French government. The Commune governed Paris for two months, until it was suppressed by the regular French Army during “La semaine sanglante” (“The Bloody Week”) beginning on 21 May 1871.

Debates over the policies and outcome of the Commune had significant influence on the ideas of Karl Marx, who described it as an example of the “dictatorship of the proletariat”.

The pretext of the plot is that Dana, a participant in the Commune of Paris has been sentenced to death in absentia for a murder on the Haxo street during the Paris Commune. In 1905, Dana is still missing and no one knows where he is or if he’s still alive. Rumors say he might be in America.

Dana was part of a group of activists during the Paris Commune, a group of historical figures (Courbet, Verlaine, Louise Michel, Vallès) and fictional characters like Marceau, the man who wonders what has become of Dana.

So far, so good. Good blurb, excellent idea for a book. Its execution was a death sentence for this reader. There are so many things that went wrong for me that I abandoned it, despite a genuine interest in reading about the Paris Commune.

The layout of the book:

Different typos to help the reader know where they are: normal for relating the Paris Commune in 1871, italic for the quest in 1905 and normal with another font to write about the murder. Tedious. I wonder how it turns out in audio book. I hate this device: the writing should be good enough to make the reader understand they’re back in time or moving forward or changing of point of view. It’s a lazy way to overcome the difficulty of changing of time, place and narrator.

Losing the plot line

The investigation to discover what has become of Dana should be our main thread except that we have a hard time figuring out it’s supposed to be the plot line. Thank God for the blurb. It’s not a real and methodical investigation so, right after I finally got it was the purpose of the book, I lost sight of it.

Missing key elements on the historical events. 

The Paris Commune events are told in short paragraphs with their date, to give the reader a chronology of the movement and its fall. Fine. But, as a reader who knows next to nothing about the Paris Commune (and I’m sure I’m not the only one) I didn’t understand how it happened, who were Communards, the ones fighting against the Thiers government. Thank God for Wikipedia.

Mixing historical characters with fictional ones. 

Except for the obvious ones, I couldn’t figure out who were real participants and who were literary characters. I don’t know how much Verlaine was involved in the Paris Commune or if it’s true that his wife was one of Louise Michel’s pupil. I suppose it’s true.

The style

The last straw that broke my reader’s back was the style. At times some sort of lyrical prose overflowing with words and at other times, half sentences, almost bullet points. Add to the mix, embedded verses by Verlaine when a paragraph features the poet, like here:

Il faudrait questionner Courbet, savoir ce qu’il peint d’un modèle. Ou Verlaine. Son rêve étrange et pénétrant n’est jamais tout à fait le même ni tout à fait un autre.

Patrick Pécherot, Une plaie ouverte, p141

Je fais souvent ce rêve étrange et pénétrant

D’une femme inconnue, et que j’aime, et qui m’aime,

Et qui n’est, chaque fois, ni tout à fait la même

Ni tout à fait une autre, et m’aime et me comprend.

Paul Verlaine, Mon rêve familier.

And the language is uneven, moving from one register to the other, often using argot from I don’t know what time. 1871?

I tried to soldier on but I was at the end of my rope page 166, out of 318. I say I gave it a good shot. Like the one Dana gave to Amédée Floquin, the man he murdered? I guess I’ll never know whether he actually killed him or if he’s still alive in 1905. The style is really what made be abandon the book, it grated too much. I was still learning things about the Paris Commune (with Wikipedia on the side) but the style was too unbearable for me to finish the book.

That’s a pity. Maybe I wasn’t in the right mood, maybe I’m too demanding, I don’t know. An Open Wound won a literary prize for crime fiction, Le Prix Transfuge of the best Polar. I fail to see how this book is a polar at all but I’m not proficient in putting books in literary boxes.

The good thing about aborted read is that I got to browse through the list of books that are based upon the Paris Commune. I need to read La Débâcle by Zola, at least I know the style will be outstanding. There are poems by Victor Hugo, L’Année terrible. There’s L’Insurgé by Jules Vallès and Le Cri du peuple by Jean Vautrin, that was also made into a BD by Jacques Tardi. And Tardi is a reference in the BD world.

The Romance of a Mummy by Théophile Gautier

March 11, 2017 19 comments

The Romance of a Mummy by Théophile Gautier (1858) Original French title: Le roman de la momie.

Note: I read The Romance of a Mummy in French. For the translation of the quote, I used the English translation by F. C. de Sumichrast that is available at Gutenberg Project.   I am totally unable to translate Gautier myself.

The Romance of a Mummy was our Book Club choice for February, so I’m a little late with my billet but it doesn’t matter. Here’s the blurb on my book:

Pharaoh loves Tahoser who loves Poëri. Pharaoh is back from Ethiopia when he casts a lustful glance at Tahoser, the daughter of a high priest. He is covered with glory, he has nothing to expect from the world and he suddenly feels that he’s a slave to this young Egyptian. But gorgeous and graceful Tahoser longs for a man with dark eyes, a man she had a glimpse of from the terrace of a luxuriant house. She doesn’t hesitate to shed away her rich clothes and jewels to conquer the heart of Poëri, this exiled Hebrew man.

A sumptuous love story that a young English Lord will discover on the papyrus he found in an inviolate grave in the Valley of the Kings. There rests for eternity but with all the appearance of life, a young woman who’s been dead for thirty centuries.

That’s the summary. What the summary won’t tell you is that, in a book of 159 pages, 40 are eaten by a prolog that describes with great minutiae the discovery of the papyrus. This prolog has been removed from the version on Project Gutenberg, btw. Then 30 pages are devoted to the description of Thebes, of Tahoser’s palace and of Pharaoh’s triumphal return. All this is aimed at French readers who want to bask into Ancient Egypt. Consequently, it doesn’t feel at all like a story from a papyrus written thirty centuries ago but like a lecture on pharaonic architecture and Ancient Egypt’s ways.

True, Gautier can write, as you can see in this description of heat in Thebes:

Oph (c’est le nom égyptien de la ville que l’antiquité appelait Thèbes aux cent portes ou Diospolis Magna) semblait endormie sous l’action dévorante d’un soleil de plomb. Il était midi ; une lumière blanche tombait du ciel pâle sur la terre pâmée de chaleur ; le sol brillanté de réverbérations luisait comme du métal fourbi, et l’ombre ne traçait plus au pied des édifices qu’un mince filet bleuâtre, pareil à la ligne d’encre dont un architecte dessine son plan sur le papyrus ; les maisons, aux murs légèrement inclinés en talus, flamboyaient comme des briques au four ; les portes étaient closes, et aux fenêtres, fermées de stores en roseaux clissés, nulle tête n’apparaissait. Oph (that is the name of the city which antiquity called Thebes of the Hundred Gates, or Diospolis Magna), seemed asleep under the burning beams of the blazing sun. It was noon. A white light fell from the pale sky upon the baked earth; the sand, shimmering and scintillating, shone like burnished metal; shadows there were none, save a narrow, bluish line at the foot of buildings, like the inky line with which an architect draws upon papyrus; the houses, whose walls sloped well inwards, glowed like bricks in an oven; every door was closed, and no one showed at the windows, which were closed with blinds of reeds.

Believe me, it sounds a lot less bombastic in English. The translator erased a lot of the pomposity and sensuality of the original text. Alas, I had to endure it in French. And Gautier does use and abuse of bombast. All the time. For everything. He loves longs sentences made of lists of things to describe anything. The palace, the city, Tahoser’s jewels. He can’t say something is full of flowers. He has to write the list of all the flowers. This is really not my type of prose. I feel smothered in words, irritated by his useless show-off of the breadth of his knowledge of the French language. The man must have been a walking dictionary.

Such prose should end up in a five hundred pages book and here, it’s only 159 pages. This means that the pages he wasted on endless descriptions are missing for characterization. The book is sick with architectural grandeur but the characters are papyrus thin. They see someone beautiful, they fall madly in love, it’s the man/woman of their dream. It’s full of unrealistic feelings and behaviors. The last part of the novel couples this improbable love triangle to the train of the biblical tale of Moses leading the Hebrews out of Egypt. Unbelievable.

I get that The Romance of a Mummy was part of the Egyptomania current in the 19th century. I understand that in 1858, the lengthy descriptions might have been helpful to help the reader see the setting in their mind, since there was no films. Unfortunately, it didn’t age well. In 2017, it sounds like a half-baked Hollywood peplum.

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