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Black Moses by Alain Mabanckou

November 5, 2017 16 comments

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

Mabanckou’s novel Black Moses opens like this:

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

(Translation by Helen Stevenson)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quand je croise un voleur malchanceux,

Poursuivi par un cul-terreux;

Je lance la patte et pourquoi le taire,

Le cul-terreux se r’trouv’ par terre.

Je ne fais pourtant de tort à personne,

En laissant courir les voleurs de pommes ;

When I run into an unlucky thief

Chased by a hick

I stick out my foot and why keep it quiet,

The hick finds himself on the ground

Yet I don’t do harm to anyone

By letting apple thieves have a run. 

Translation from the site Brassens With English

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

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

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

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

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

Your Face Will Be the Last by João Ricardo Pedro

October 27, 2017 9 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

Portuguese lit: The Memorables by Lídia Jorge

September 10, 2017 20 comments

The Memorables by Lídia Jorge (2014) French title: Les Mémorables. Translated by Geneviève Leibrich.

Elle serrait contre elle la copie des plans dessinés par la main de celui qui, trente ans plus tôt, avait mis en marche cinq mille hommes contre un régime décrépit, un de ces régimes si long et si séniles qu’ils laissent du fumier sur la terre pour plusieurs siècles. She held to her chest a copy of the maps designed by the man who, thirty years before, had led five thousand men against a decrepit regime. It was one of those long and senile regimes that left manure on earth for several centuries.

“She” is Ana Maria Machado, a young Portuguese journalist who works for CBS in Washington DC. The five thousand men mentioned in this quote are the military men who participated in the coup d’état on April 25th, 1974 in Lisbon, the one that led to the Carnation Revolution and the fall of the Portuguese dictatorship.

After reportages in war zones, Ana Maria’s boss asks her to go back to Lisbon and film a documentary about the Carnation Revolution and the miracle of this peaceful revolution where the military takes power to bring democracy to their country.

Ana Maria is reluctant to go back to Lisbon where she has unresolved issues with her father, Ántonio Machado, a famous political editorialist whose column always proved to be insightful. He was also close to the people who did the revolution. Ana Maria needs a crew for her mission and rekindles a working relationship with Margarida and Miguel Ângelo, two reporters she knew in journalism school.

Ana Maria decides against telling her father about her project, mostly because she doesn’t want him to interfere with her vision of the events. In Ántonio’s office, she borrows a picture taken on 21st of August 1975, in a restaurant, the Memories. This picture portrays all the people who were decisive participants in the revolution and close witnesses of the events. This photo will be the Ariadne thread of the documentary.

Ana Maria and her friends want to reconstruct the minutes this 25 of April 1974 and understand what everyone did and when. They will go and interview these key actors or their widow to discover what they did that day, how they felt, how they lived afterwards and how they reflect on the revolution, thirty years later.

Lídia Jorge autopsies the military coup that brought democracy to her country but more importantly, she questions what happened to the major players of the Carnation Revolution. Her book was published in 2014, for the fortieth anniversary of the 25 of April 1974 events. Ana Maria writes her story six years after she did her documentary and what she narrates happened in 2004, for the thirtieth anniversary of the revolution. Symbolic years. Time and remembrance are important in her book.

I wanted to read about the Carnation Revolution and it gave me a better vision of what happened and how extraordinary it was to have such a smooth transition to democracy. Lídia Jorge points out two disconcerting facts about these events: one, the major actors of the military coup were never properly thanked and none had a glorious career after that. And two, they were forgotten from the public. This is very different from what Petros Markaris describes about Greece in Bread, Education, Freedom or what Yasmina Khadra writes about Algeria in Dead Man’s ShareBoth Markaris and Khadra explain how the actors of the country’s liberation cashed on their being on the right side, either during the decisive demonstration against the Greek regime or against the French. In these two countries, these men became untouchable heroes, grabbed on power and didn’t let it go.

According to The Memorables, no heroes were born from the Carnation Revolution in Portugal. Ana Maria knew the men on the photo because her parents gravitated in their circle. Margarida and Miguel Ângelo had to research them. Lídia Jorge wants to celebrate them, to remind them to the Portuguese and show how ungrateful the Republic was towards them. None of them benefited from their act.

In addition to the questioning about the place they have in the Portuguese collective memory, Lídia Jorge muses over the impact of living through such historical events. How do you go back to normal after that? How does one leave their glorious days behind and go on with a mundane everyday life? How do you survive to the I-was-there-and-part-of-it syndrome? There is a before and an after the 25th April 1974 for all the Portuguese who were old enough at the time to grasp the importance of this day, but for the people who prepared the coup and succeeded, how does the rest of your life measure up to this? (I’ve always wondered how Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr survived to being a Beatle)

Ana Maria’s personal story is also linked to the 25th of April. That day, her mother, Machado’s lover, was supposed to fly back to her country, Belgium. The beginning and the excitement of the Carnation Revolution convinced to stay in Portugal. So, Ana Maria’s existence is also an outcome of the revolution. As mentioned before, her parents were close to the new power and knew the key players. Coming back to Lisbon is a personal journey for her. She’s estranged from her father and never saw her mother again after she divorced her father when she was twelve. She doesn’t want him to ask questions about her current assignment and therefore avoids asking questions herself. They live together but barely talk to each other. This added a dimension to the novel.

What can I say about my response to The Memorables? Honestly, sometimes I found it very tedious to read. When I read Dubliners, I wondered Do you need to be Irish to love Dubliners by James Joyce? because there were so many precise political details in the short stories that I felt I was missing vital clues in the stories. I felt the same here and I wondered if I needed to be Portuguese to fully understand the meaning of The Memorables. All the historical characters mentioned in the novel through a nickname are pathetic in the interviews with Ana Maria and her friends. It’s puzzling. They all have issues and are eccentric. How real are they? It made the book difficult to read and I don’t know how much is true and how much comes from the novelist’s licence. On top of that, Ana Maria is not exactly a warm character and it’s hard to root for her. And that’s probably the major problem I had with The Memorables. I was never fully engaged in the reporters’ quest. It could have been suspenseful and it wasn’t, except for the last 100 pages when Ana Maria uncovers her father’s secrets.

All in all, I’m glad I read it but it was not an agreeable read. I’d love to hear about your response to it. Alas, this is not available in English so none of my English-speaking followers will have read it. So, I’d be glad to hear from French and Portuguese readers who might have read it.

Street Art in Lisbon. Salgueiro Maia, member of the MFA, the “Armed Forces Movement”

Portuguese Lit: Jesus Christ Drank Beer by Afonso Cruz

September 3, 2017 10 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What a sight it would be.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Veiled Hookers Will Never Go to Heaven! by Chahdortt Djavann

July 21, 2017 6 comments

Veiled Hookers Will Never Go to Heaven by Chahdortt Djavann (2016) Original French title: Les putes voilées n’iront jamais au paradis.

Veiled Hookers Will Never Go to Heaven by Chahdortt Djavann was our Book Club choice for July. Chahdortt Djavann is a French female writer born in Iran in 1967. According to her bio on Wikipedia, she was arrested in 1980 for participating to a march against the religious power in Iran. She was incarcerated and beaten up. She came to France in 1993, learnt French by herself –now you’re in awe of her—by reading text books, Gide, Maupassant, Camus and Romain Gary –now you know I can only have a soft spot for her. She studied in a very famous school of sociology and did her memoir about religious indoctrination in the school system in Iran. Her PhD thesis was about writing in another language, a study based upon the works of Ionesco, Cioran and Beckett.

This quick bio gives you the picture of a highly educated woman, someone who suffered early of being a woman in a world dominated by men, someone who’s deeply against religious extremists and profoundly fond of literature.

Veiled Hookers Will Never Go to Heaven uses fiction to write about prostitution in Iran. The book opens with the murders of women in the streets of Teheran. Women are found assassinated and the police and passersby quickly assume that they are hookers. Djavann shows how this deduction is based on nothing factual, only on the fact that these women were alone on the street and so they must be loose women.

Un rien fait de vous une pute, dans cette contrée. Femme, dès qu’on vous remarque, pour quelque raison que ce soit, vous êtes forcément une pute. Une femme vertueuse est une femme invisible. Un tchador noir que rien ne distingue des autres tchadors. Un tchador seul, sur une route déserte, si austèrement fermé qu’il soit, se fait remarquer, il s’y cache donc une pute. A little nothing tags you as a hooker in this country. Woman, as soon as someone notices you, whatever the reason, you must be a hooker. A virtuous woman is an invisible woman. A black chador that nothing differentiates from other black chadors. A lonely chador on a desert road, no matter how austerely closed it is, is noticeable. Therefore there’s a hooker inside.

This is the first glimpse of the Iranian society and its treatment of women.

Djavann describes several murders, several women whose corpse nobody claims and the murders go on while good people approve of the murderer’s actions. After all, he’s cleaning the streets of vermin. And the reader discovers that if one kills someone who’s considered as mahdourodam (worthless), then it’s not a murder. But only a mollah highly qualified in religious matters can decide whether the life of the victim was a human worth living or not. This law is of course appalling for a Westerner.

Djavann quickly sums up the position of women in Iran. They are things to be owned, to be married off, to be disposed of:

Les femmes sont les biens des hommes de leur famille et elles restent jusqu’à leur mort sous tutelle masculine. Women are the property of the men of the family and remain under male guardianship until they die.

Hmm, isn’t that a definition of slavery?

Spinning off this true story of murdered women in Teheran, Djavann starts exploring the condition of women and the importance of prostitution in Iran. Instead of writing an essay, she decides to write snapshots, fake interviews in order to give a life, a voice and a face to these women. We’ll read vignettes but we’ll also follow the fate of two girls who are twelve years old when the book opens. They are named Zahra and Soudabeh. Both are beautiful. They are best friends but get separated at twelve when Zahra is married off by her father to a much older man. We’ll follow their parallel fates and see how they’ll end up as prostitutes.

This is a strange novel, style wise. It mixes a bit of journalism, very crude language, legal explanations and fiction. After each snapshot where a prostitute describes her awful life, there’s a little paragraph about the city where she lives. Each time, it’s a very old city, with a lot of culture and Djavann seems to silently call out to us and say “How? How can such an old spot of culture become such a barbaric place?”

When Djavann describes the women’s experiences, she uses very crude language. It’s violent and uncomfortable but she probably found it necessary to convey the pure violence done to these women.

This goes further than the usual criticism you can read about Iran. In Satrapi’s comic books or in Nahapétian’s crime fiction, you see that women are not independent, that they need to cover themselves, that there are a lot of things they cannot do and that the mores police tracks down the rebels and the breaches to Islamic laws.

Djavann depicts a society who objectifies women in the most literal sense. Prostitution is widely spread. Men seem obsessed by sex, abusing their employees and housekeepers. Women are defenseless, they have nobody to turn to. Temporary marriages are a vast hypocrisy, allowing men to legal adultery. Women cannot do the same, of course. Here’s what she writes about adultery:

L’adultère est un crime dont le châtiment en Iran est la peine de mort, y compris pour les hommes, même s’ils ont droit à quatre femmes officielles. Parce que, selon la charia, lorsqu’un homme commet l’adultère, il déshonore non pas sa femme mais un autre musulman en lui volant, violant son bien : mère, sœur, femme, fille ou nièce. In Iran, adultery is a prime punished by death penalty, even for men and even if they are entitled to four official wives. Because, according to the sharia, when a man commits adultery, he doesn’t dishonor his wife but another Muslim by stealing and raping his property: mother, sister, daughter or niece.

Djavann doesn’t generalize but shows how the Islamic laws in place are so idiotic and humiliating for women that it stuns you silly. She explains the legal arguments behind some rules and everything is warped. Zealots and extremists bend religious texts to their will and only use them in their own interest. Djavann denounces a system based upon hypocrisy and enslavement of the female population. And one can only wonder: what are these men afraid of? What do they fear will happen if they consider their women as partners, as equals? The laws she mentions are all in favor of men and of their impunity. They can do whatever they want, it doesn’t count, there will be no repercussions.

This appalling vision of Iran is hard to reconcile with a country that cherishes poetry and has such a rich artistic tradition. The men she describes here come from all social classes and prostitution is institutionalized like it was in Paris in the 19th century. On the one hand, women are covered from head to toe and on the other hand men seem more obsessed by sex than in the West.

From a literary point of view, I think that the style is not polished enough to make of this novel a true literary object. I thought that the hookers’ voices sounded sometimes too educated to be plausible. I struggled with the crude language and I don’t consider myself as prude. But some passages could be porn if they were not a description of legalized rape and violence. I found it tiring sometimes. However, the message is important, I learnt things and shying away from the vulgarity of the descriptions meant looking the other way and refusing to acknowledge the abuse of these not-so-fictional women. Plus, I’m certain this vulgarity is not gratuitous but serves the purpose how showing how these women are debased.

In the end, I did not always enjoy the ride but I’m glad I read it.

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

July 6, 2017 6 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Caribou Island by David Vann

June 5, 2017 21 comments

Caribou Island by David Vann (2011) French title : Désolations. Translated by Laura Derajinski.

My mother was not real. She was an early dream, a hope. She was a place. Snowy, like here, and cold. A wooden house on a hill above a river. An overcast day, the old white paint of the buildings made brighter somehow by the trapped light, and I was coming home from school. Ten years old, walking by myself, walking through dirty patches of snow in the yard, walking up to the narrow porch. I can’t remember how my thoughts went then, can’t remember who I was or what I felt like. All of that is gone, erased. I opened our front door and found my mother hanging from the rafters. I’m sorry, I said, and I stepped back and closed the door. I was outside on the porch again.

You said that? Rhoda asked. You said you were sorry?

Yes

Oh, Mom.

It was long ago, Irene said. And it was something I couldn’t see even at the time, so I can’t see it now. I don’t know what she looked like, hanging there. I don’t remember any of it, only that it was.

This is the first page of Caribou Island by David Vann. We jump in tragedy right from the start, without any time to test the literary waters of the novel. Irene is Rhoda’s mother. She’s been married to Gary for thirty years. They met in California where Gary was working on a thesis about Anglo-Saxon early literature. They went to Alaska for a summer and never left. They built their life there, Irene as a kindergarten teacher and Gary working the odd jobs here and there while leaping from one failing project to the other. Living in Alaska was Gary’s dream, his vision of living in nature, like the sentimental version of the Vikings in the Anglo-Saxon literature he used to study. Their house in on a lake, rather far from the closest town. It takes forty minutes to Rhoda, who works in town as a veterinarian’s assistant, to come and visit her parents.

Irene and Gary are retired now and Gary’s new project is to build a cabin on Caribou Island, an island on the lake near their house. He intends to move out of their cozy home to live in this cabin. Irene doesn’t approve of this project but she thinks that if she opposes to it, Gary will leave her. And that’s unacceptable to her. Her mother committed suicide after her husband left her and Irene never saw her father again. She won’t stand to be abandoned again. She’s ready to endure anything to keep Gary.

This project becomes a battle of will between the two. Irene’s body rejects her submission to it by inflicting her blinding headaches. Gary won’t exempt her from working on the cabin and she keeps nailing wood, pulling and carrying logs and sawing woods. All this in atrocious weather because of Gary’s lack of planning. He started to build a cabin for the winter in Alaska, in mid-August, without any blueprints or schedule. You just need to read Maria Chapdelaine to know that starting such a project in Alaska so late in the summer is plain stupid.

We follow Irene and Gary’s crazy project but we also hear about their children, Rhoda and Mark. Rhoda lives with Jim, a dentist who is ten years older than her and who loves pancakes with peaches for dinner. She craves for security and is ready to settle for Jim as long as he seems reliable. Mark looks like a loser. He lives in his unfinished house by the lake, not far from his parents. His girlfriend Karen and him love pot, they live on the edge of society and Mark makes a living on fishing ships. In the end, I wondered which one of them was the most adjusted. Rhoda is ready to accept a lot for material security and her dreams of a normal life. Mark just does as he pleases but seems reliable at work and supports himself and Karen. Mark and Karen don’t need much and have chosen their lives. Between Rhoda and Mark, who’s the happiest of the two?

The main characters and the main plot thread of the novel remains Irene and Gary battling with the elements and their logs to build a lopsided cabin that Gary dreams of and that Irene dreads. Landscapes and the weather are key characters in Vann’s novel. It reminded me of Housekeeping by Marilyn Robinson. Caribou Island is sad but less bleak and depressing than Housekeeping. The books have the dreadful weather in common. Wind, rain, cold. More wind, more rain and more cold.

David Vann gave a one hour long interview at Quais du Polar this year. I attended his talk with a French journalist. He mentioned landscapes as an important literary tradition in American literature. He also said that he shared details of his life because they have a direct link with his writing. David Vann was born on an island in Alaska in 1966. He said it was a dark island, with one hundred miles per hour winds, six meters of rain per year. He explained that it was overcast and rainy all the time, that they saw the sun two weeks per year. It was isolated and his main activities where fishing and hunting. His personal knowledge of the Alaska landscape and weather is obvious in Caribou Island. It feels real, coming from experience, from the guts.

He also said that he grew up among eleven women of different generations who all had horrible dating experiences. Their vision of men was not stellar and he explained that it feels natural to him to write from a female point of view. I thought that the men in Caribou Island were pathetic and childish. Gary is cruel to Irene and dreams irrealistic dreams. He’s selfish and totally unprepared for his new venture and he dares to complain about Irene’s lack of enthusiasm. Mark distances himself from his family, he doesn’t want to get involved and would rather flee than fight for anything. Jim is like a kid in a grownup body, taking advantage of Rhoda’s kindness and practicing evasive behavior at Olympic level. Who would like to be saddled with any of them?

David Vann also explained that his books are based upon Greek tragedy canvasses. They are set in one place, in a limited period of time and with one major plot thread. This is why he works with a close-knit set of characters. Family is the most important thing in life and the closest people are the ones we love the most and the ones that can hurt us the most. We only need one person to break us and this is why side characters are nice but not necessary. To move the plot forward, a taboo needs to be broken or something life changing is about to happen and they’ll have to deal with the consequences. Here, Irene and Gary are supposed to move out to the cabin on Caribou Island. These elements are enough to cook an explosive drama, which is exactly the case in Caribou Island.

I think that the French cover of the book is excellent: Irene and Gary are like a pair of cissors. They face each other, they are attached forever and spend their time going away from each other and coming close again. This is a typically American novel with its character attracted to life as a pioneer, life in the woods, facing nature on their own. I’ve never encounted anything like this is a European novel.

Caribou Island is a powerful novel, one that will move you and irritate you. Everything is well designed, the setting, the plot, the style. And yet it feels natural. David Vann is an inspired writer, not one who prepared his first novel in creative writing class. There’s a force in his prose and in his characters that comes from deep inside him and the reader can feel it.

Impressive and highly recommended. I read this along with Guy and I’ve been a bad reading partner. I was supposed to publish this billet on May 31st but real life went in the way. Sorry again, Guy.

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