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Europeana: A Brief History of the Twentieth Century by Patrik Ouředník

June 30, 2017 10 comments

Europeana. A Brief History of the Twentieth Century by Patrik Ouředník (2001) French title: Europeana. Une brève histoire du XXè siècle. Translated from the Czech by Marianne Canavaggio.

Patrik Ouředník is a Czech writer born in 1957. He emigrated to France in 1984. He translated Rabelais, Alfred Jarry, Raymond Queneau and Samuel Beckett into Czech. Despite his excellent French and his living in France, he still writes his books in Czech. I understand that it must be hard to write in another language but I wonder why his books are not self-translated into French.

I bought Europeana. A Brief History of the Twentieth Century after reading Ouředník’s literary UFO, Ad Acta. As its title says it, Europeana is a subjective/objective history of Europe in the 20th century. Why subjective/objective? Subjective, because Ouředník decides which facts he relates and in which order. Objective because all the facts are true, no fake news to make the buzz here.

To give you an idea of his style and his tone, here’s the first page of the book. (English translation by Gerald Turner)

The Americans who fell in Normandy in 1944 were tall men measuring 173 centimeters on average, and if they were laid head to foot they would measure 38 kilometers. The Germans were tall too, while the tallest of all were the Senegalese fusiliers in the First World War who measured 176 centimeters, and so they were sent into battle on the front lines in order to scare the Germans. It was said of the First World War that people in it fell like seeds and the Russian Communists later calculated how much fertilizer a square kilometer of corpses would yield and how much they would save on expensive foreign fertilizers if they used the corpses of traitors and criminals instead of manure. And the English invented the tank and the Germans invented gas, which was known as yperite because the Germans first used it near the town of Ypres, although apparently that was not true, and it was also called mustard because it stung the nose like Dijon mustard, and that was apparently true, and some soldiers who returned home after the war did not want to eat Dijon mustard again.

The 150 pages of the book are made of the same cloth. Europeana is the accumulation of odd and random facts. They are told in this playful tone but some of them are dreadful. Ouředník covers the twentieth century in all aspects. He mixes singular information, excerpts from surveys and historical facts. It blends sociology and history. It puts the stress on all kinds of events that built the 20th century in an organized / disorganized kind of way. It questions the idea of history, how we tell it, how we highlight some facts and not others and how this choice affects the global picture that we have of an era. Ouředník does not concentrate only on politics and wars but also on the changes in mores, on progress in science. He reminds us that art and pop culture are part of our history.

His being from Eastern Europe brings another angle to Europe’s history. He doesn’t gloss over the brutal communist dictatorships in Eastern countries and that’s fortunate. Despite mentioning culture, science and mores, the 20th century remains a century of horrors. It’s full of mass killings and dictatorships. Italy, Spain and then the Nazi plague followed by the Communist cholera. Totalitarianism bloomed in this century, leaving millions of victims in its wake. This is not new. What’s new is how he assembles facts and how he lines them up like beads on a necklace. It’s almost absurd, ludicrous and it’s not a surprise coming from a man who translated Rabelais, Jarry and Beckett.

It looks absurd but everything is true. We’re not reading Ubu Rex a king we know never existed. We’re reading true facts. In this age of Brexit and Fake News, Europeana is a good way to remember why the EU was created and why journalism and facts matter.

I have one reservation, though. I enjoyed reading Europeana and it’s good to read it in small doses because the number of facts becomes overwhelming after a while. It’s also a reminder that the accumulation of information saturates the brain. Things blend and we lose our capacity to absorb what we read and process it. We lose our ability to be upset, to oppose to Something because it’s soon pushed to the back of our mind by other information. Now, I’d be totally unable to quote exact facts from the book. Either we consider it’s one of the book’s weakness or we consider that it’s one of its strengths because it shows how limited we are in remembering data.

Has anyone read Europeana too? If yes, what did you think of it?

Hell & Gone and Point & Shoot by Duane Swierczynski

August 29, 2016 10 comments

Hell & Gone (2011) and Point & Shoot (2013) by Duane Swierczynski. Not available in French. (So far. So it goes in the Translation Tragedy category)

 What was that old saying? It’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye? Hardie supposed the fun and games were over. Now it was something else.

Swierczynski_hell_gone

And something else it is.

I have read Hell & Gone and Point & Shoot by Duane Swierczynski almost one after the other. There are the two last books of the Charlie Hardie trilogy. The first one is Fun & Games and my billet about it is here.

In the first episode, poor Charlie Hardie happens to be at the wrong place at the wrong time and crosses path with a secret organization, The Accident People, who are specialized in killing people through what looks like an accident. Charlie Hardie is a tough guy. The Accident People are so impressed with his resilience and toughness that they decide they they want him to work for them. Hardie isn’t really on board with the idea so they don’t give him a choice. They kidnap him, drug him and ship him to in a high security prison somewhere. Soon, Hardie discovers he’s supposed to be the warden of highly dangerous criminals. And there’s a catch: if he tries to escape, it will trigger a death mechanism and everybody will die. And Charlie Hardie isn’t a killer. So a warden he becomes and he needs to manage a team of lethal guards. Hardie is a lone wolf. He used to work for the Philadelphia Police Department as a “consultant”, being a real cop wasn’t his thing. He worked closely with a police officer, Nate, and he was the one with the social skills in the duo. Hardie is not a leader, he’s a Pitbull who never gives up. Despite his desperate position, he still plans on escaping and doing whatever it takes to get out.

Hardie needed to gain their trust somehow, put them at ease. He couldn’t escape if his own staff was keeping a closer eye on him than the actual prisoners.

God help him…

He needed to hold a staff meeting.

This gives you a taste of Swierczynski’s brand of prose. Punchy, straight to the point and laced with tons of humor. The whole book is a fast paced adventure as Hardie discovers the ins and outs of the prison and the personality of the prisoners. It’s hard to know who to trust. There are new developments all the time and it’s a highly enjoyable ride.

In Point & Shoot, Hardie has been sent in orbit around the Earth. The Accident People again. This time he’s keeping something precious in a satellite. He’s trapped there for a year at least and he can observe his wife Kendra and kid through a weekly live feed. He must stay on duty for twelve months otherwise his wife and kid will have “an accident”. He can’t say he’s comfy in his in-orbit shoe box.

Ordinary life up here in space was a Black & Decker funhouse of pain.

Things change when his avatar lands on the satellite and makes them fall into the Pacific Ocean. How will they survive? Is this man trustworthy? Are Kendra and Charlie Junior in danger?

You’ll know more if you read the book. We learn more about the criminal organization that holds Hardie prisoner, why he’s so resilient despite all the beatings, drugging and other awful things that happen to his body. His mind is unreachable. He’s stubborn as hell and never gives up. He’s got a one track mind and protecting his wife and son is his only goal.

He’s an engaging character because his moral compass remains stable. He’s tough physically but also mentally. He remains human, not a superhero. It is through little observations that the reader sympathizes with Hardie’s predicament.

Sometimes all Hardie wanted in the world was the opportunity to stretch. A real stretch, where you can reach your hands to heaven and you can feel the vertebrae pop. Such a stretch was impossible in this claustrophobic tin can. And taking a leak? Back on Earth, guys were blessed with the ability to find a semi-hidden spot, unzip, and let it fly. Up here Hardie had t contort as he were doing yoga in a closet. If the vacuum seal wasn’t tight, then he’s enjoy the sensation of his own gravity-free piss droplets smacking into his face.

He’s the good guy put in impossible situations and he fights against the monsters.

Swierczynski_point_shootThese books are off the charts action movies. I wonder why nobody turned them into films. There’s so much material here. I love Swierczynski’s sense of humor, his style and his crazy ideas. He even gave the surname of his French translator to the French character in Hell & Gone. It’s an unusual surname, Aslanides, I knew she was her translator for France and I asked him if it was an allusion to her and it is.

I’m so sorry to report to French readers that this trilogy isn’t translated into French. It’s available in ebook and in English. Unfortunately, it means you won’t have the paper books with their gorgeous covers.

Many thanks again to Guy for pointing Duane Swierczynski in my direction. I will definitely read other books by him. Here are his reviews of Hell & Gone  and of Point & Shoot

 

Spanish Lit Month: Exemplary crimes by Max Aub

July 20, 2016 22 comments

Exemplary Crimes by Max Aub. (1956) Original Spanish title: Crímenes ejemplares. French title: Crimes exemplaires. (Translated by Danièle Guibbert.)

Après, ici, n’importe quel malheureux petit mort, ils l’appellent cadavre. But then here, any tiny little dead body, they call it a stiff.

This is my first participation to Spanish Lit Month organized by Richard and Stu. I started with Exemplary Crimes by Max Aub.

aub_crimes_exemplairesMax Aub was born in 1903. His mother was French and his father German but he adopted the Spanish language when his family moved to Valencia in 1914. After the Spanish Civil War, he moved to Mexico where he remained until his death in 1972. He worked as a salesman, he was the one who ordered Guernica to Picasso for the Republican Government and worked with André Malraux. Among other things.

Exemplary Crimes is a Literary UFO, one of those books that don’t belong to a pre-defined category. In France, it won the Grand Prix de l’Humour Noir in 1981 and that says a lot about it. It is a cultural and literary prize created in 1957 that rewards works of black humour. Raymond Queneau used to be in the jury and my dear Quino also won it in 1981, in the Comics category.

So what is Exemplary Crimes exactly? It is a collection of 130 assassinations, all done in good faith according to their perpetrator. Each is described by a phrase, a paragraph or a page maximum. Each is the confession of the murderer who tells how or why they killed their victim. They all have what they consider a good justification for their deed. They don’t feel guilty or they try to convince themselves that their victim deserved it. Sometimes it’s written in a very candid tone:

Je l’ai d’abord tué en rêve, ensuite je n’ai pu m’empêcher de le faire vraiment. C’était inévitable. I first killed him in my dreams and then I couldn’t help myself, I killed him for real. It was inevitable.

It can be almost poetic in its twisted way…

– Plutôt mourir! me dit-elle. Et dire que ce que je voulais par-dessus tout, c’était lui faire plaisir. I’d rather die, she said. And me, I wanted to please her above all.

Or sometimes they’re totally unapologetic in front of an imaginary jury at their trial:

Qu’est-ce qu’ils veulent de plus ? Il était accroupi. Il me présentait ses arrières d’une manière si ridicule et il était à ma portée de manière si parfaite que je n’ai pu résister à la tentation de le pousser. What more do they want? He was crouched. He presented me with his rear-end with such a ridiculous manner and he was within my reach so perfectly that I couldn’t resist the temptation to push him.

Indeed, what is there to understand? Isn’t that obvious to anyone? Others will show you that there was no other way out. Their victim called it upon themselves.

Pourquoi essayer de le convaincre ? C’était un sectaire de la pire espèce, comme s’il se prenait pour Dieu le Père. Il avait la cervelle bouchée. Je la lui ai ouverte d’un seul coup, pour lui faire voir comment on apprend à discuter. Que celui qui ne sait pas se taise. Why try to convince him? He was a sectarian of the worst species, as if he were God himself. His brain was clogged up. I opened it for him all at once, just to teach him how to talk things out. Ignorant people should shut up.

Oh the irony. Some try to be rational…

Il m’avait mis un morceau de glace dans le dos. Le moins que je puisse faire était de le refroidir. He had put an ice cube in my back. The least I could do was to ice him off.

…or to explain how exasperated they were when they committed their crime. They try to show how their victim pushed them over the edge with their obnoxious behaviour.

Et jusque dans la salle de bains : et ci et ça et autre chose. Je lui ai enfoncé la serviette dans la bouche pour qu’elle se taise. Elle n’est pas morte de ça, mais de ne plus pouvoir parler: les paroles ont éclaté à l’intérieur. And even in the bathroom: and this and that and blah blah blah. I shoved a towel down her throat to shut her up. She didn’t die from this but from not being able to talk anymore. The words burst inside of her.

Some premeditated their crime and regret more getting caught than killing someone. I loved this one, it reminded me of Olivier Norek, a French crime fiction writer who is also a police officer.

Je l’ai empoisonné parce que je voulais son siège à l’Académie. Je ne pensais pas qu’on le découvrirait. Mais il y a eu ce romancier de merde et qui de surcroît est commissaire de police. I poisoned him because I wanted his chair at the Academy. I didn’t think they would find out. But there was this crappy novelist who’s also a superintendent.

Imagine the investigation in the corridors of the Academy and the crime investigator turned writer who unearths a crime in a community who supposed to be very civilized.

I read Exemplary Crimes during the football UEFA Euro 2016 in France and I couldn’t help chuckling when I read this one:

C’était comme si c’était fait ! Il n’y avait qu’à pousser le ballon, avec ce gardien de but qui n’était pas à sa place…Et il l’a envoyé par-dessus le filet ! Et ce but était décisif ! Nous nous foutions complètement de ces putains de minables de la Nopalera. Si le coup de pied que je lui ai balancé l’a envoyé dans l’autre monde, qu’il apprenne au moins à shooter comme Dieu le demande. It was almost done! He just had to push the ball, with this goalie who wasn’t in his place…And he sent it over the net! And this was a decisive goal! We didn’t give a damn of these bloody losers from Nopalera. If the kick I threw his way sent him into the other world, let him learn how to shoot as God requires.

Thankfully, I don’t think any football player met the same fate during the competition.  I also thought about all the guns circulating in the USA when I read this short one:

Je l’ai tué parce que j’avais un révolver. J’avais tant de plaisir à le tenir dans ma main ! I killed him because I had a gun. I had so much pleasure holding it!

Chilling.

A last one. A husband was killed because he broke the household’s precious soup tureen.

Je ne l’ai pas fait avec le pic à glace. Monsieur, non, je l’ai fait avec le fer à repasser. I didn’t do it with the ice pick. No Sir, I did it with the flatiron.

We’re far from glamourous Sharon Stone and her Basic Instincts. We’re closer to shrew territory or to Susanita’s mother in Quino’s comic strip at best. Plus soup was involved, which brings me back to Quino too.

I had a lot of fun reading this and I highly recommend it as a summer read. For French readers, it’s like reading a book by Desproges. For English speaking readers, I’m sorry to report that it is not available in English. Another Translation Tragedy. However, the texts are short and it can be a good way to practice your French or your Spanish if you feel like it.

PS: I did the English translations the best I could. I hope they reflec the tone of the original.

B Is For Beer by Tom Robbins

April 6, 2015 20 comments

B Is For Beer by Tom Robbins. (2009) French title: B comme bière. Translated by François Happe.

Robbins_beerI recently realized that there’s no French word to say teetotaler. I wonder why. Because it’s a wine country? Because it used to be a Catholic country with wine at mass? Because alcohol has never been prohibited? I don’t have a clue, I only know we don’t have a word to describe someone who doesn’t drink alcohol.

As a matter of fact, I don’t drink wine or beer because I don’t like the taste of them. Don’t ask me how I survive in wine country without drinking any of it –imagine me enduring wine tasting at the Hospices de Beaune, standing beside friends and waiting for the boring thing to end—or how I survived being a student in a city where a street is renamed Rue de la bière because it’s the local Temple Bar. So, when I saw that B Is For Beer by Tom Robbins promised to explain beer to children, I thought it was meant for me. At last I’d know what the fuss was all about!

Here’s the first paragraph:

Have you ever wondered why your daddy likes beer so much? Have you wondered, before you fall asleep at night, why he sometimes acts kind of “funny” after he’s been drinking beer? Maybe you’ve even wondered where beer comes from, because you’re pretty sure it isn’t from a cow. Well, Gracie Perkel wondered those same things.

Gracie is almost six and she wonders what this mysterious beverage the adults drink is all about. Her father doesn’t volunteer but her Uncle Moe starts explaining and even promises to take her to visit the Redhook brewery. When Uncle Moe lets her down and the visit is cancelled, she’s very angry and steals a beer can in the fridge. She drinks it, gets drunk and sick and the Beer Fairy appears to her. The Fairy will take her to the beer country to explain to Gracie how beer is made and how it is consumed. Follows a fantasy journey to a fantasy land.

Tom Robbins is funny in many aspects. He has a funny mind and a funny style. For example, the Perkels, like the writer himself, live in Seattle. Even here in France we know it’s a rainy city. Here’s how Tom Robbins decribes rains in Seattle:

Do you know about drizzle, that thin, soft rain that could be mistaken for a mean case of witch measles? Seattle is the world headquarters of drizzle, and in autumn it leaves a damp gray rash on everything, as though the city were a baby that had been left too long in a wet diaper and then rolled in newspaper. When there is also a biting wind, as there was this day, Seattle people sometimes feel like they’re trapped in a bad Chinese restaurant; one of those drafty, cheaply lit places where the waiters are gruff, the noodles soggy, the walls a little too green, and although there’s a mysterious poem inside every fortune cookie, tea is invariably spilt on your best sweater.

The whole book is full of humorous descriptions, witty comments about humanity and its attraction to beer. The Beer Fairy shows the good and the bad about beer, subtly recommending moderation. Everything in life is about balance and not taking yourself too seriously. I had a wonderful time with that book. I read it in one sitting, an evening I needed distraction. It’s a joyful fairytale that will take you to another world. Tom Robbins has a unique angle on things, seeing fun in little details and creating a plausible Beer Fairy. He brings back your childhood, a time when you loved to imagine these hidden worlds or that there was a little man working a switch button to put light in the fridge when you open it.

Beer_Robbins

I have B Is For Beer in French and the translation is outstanding. François Hoppe managed to translate the puns in a very convincing way. It must have been complicated sometimes to find something equivalent without betraying the original text.

It’s the perfect book to pick while traveling or in-between two serious books or before visiting Ireland or Belgium but I’m afraid it didn’t change my mind. I still can’t swallow beer. 🙂

PS: Something else, for non-European readers. In this book, you’ll read “In Italy and in France, a child Gracie’s age could walk into an establishment, order a beer, and be served”. In case you’d take this seriously, don’t, because it’s not true. You need to be 18 to drink alcohol and it’s forbidden to sell alcohol to a minor, even in a supermarket.

Stout born

December 3, 2014 17 comments

At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien. 1939 French title: Swim-Two-Birds.

OBrienMea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa, I’m late for November’s Book Club billet. I have abandoned the book so I don’t have any excuse for the late entry, except that work got in the way. I have to say it was a general abandonment, nobody managed to finish the book this month. It was At-Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien. I bought my copy at the bookshop in the Dublin Writers Museum. The quote by Dylan Thomas on the back caught my eyes This is just the book to give to your sister if she’s a loud, dirty, boozy girl. I thought it sounded fun. I wish I had seen that Flann O’Brien had been knighted as “real writer” by James Joyce. It would have tipped me off.

So what’s it about? Er…I don’t exactly know. There’s some guy who’s attending Dublin’s University. He lives with his uncle and loves staying in his room until the air is stale. He likes to drink beer in pubs (well, he’s a Dubliner, right?) He writes unclassifiable stories that are related in the book. The reader, me in this instance, is totally disoriented. I have the novel in English, it’s full of parody of Irish things I know nothing about and I felt I was drowning in an ocean of words perfumed with Irish stout.

I’ve struggled with 50 pages and then I gave up. I asked for help, got some and was told to basically enjoy the funny ride. The problem I couldn’t because it was too complicated to follow. I’ve read 50 pages and I have 13 quotes, most of them marked down as “funny”. Examples:

It was only a few months before composing the foregoing that I had my first experience of intoxicating beverage and their strange intestinal chemistry.

Or

To convert stout into water, I said, there is simple process. Even a child can do it, though I would not stand for giving stout to children. Is it not a pity that the art of man has not attained the secret of converting water into stout?

I enjoyed the booze induced parts of the pages I’ve read and the descriptions of the narrator’s life in Dublin. Apart from this, it is hard for me to describe O’Brien’s work. It’s totally wacked and yet innovative. It’s unsettling especially since it’s populated (in the 50 pages I’ve read, at least) with legendary heroes of Ireland, fictional Mr Furriskey created by the fictional narrator of the book, Irish version of cowboys… It made me dizzy in a Laughing-Cow sort of way: the Laughing-Cow has earrings, in which there’s a Laughing Cow that has earrings that have a Laughing Cown that…etc. And that’s where you forget where you came from. All this in a language rather difficult for me, as a non-native. It’s a literary scrap-book of the narrator’s thoughts and excerpts of his writing.

I do enjoy crazy books but this one was too much for me. Perhaps it should be read under the influence of stout, to be attuned to the character. Alas, I don’t drink stout. Or perhaps I should have read it in French? Anyway, don’t dismiss this book because of this billet. The problem is clearly on my Book Club’s side.

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