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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”

Dead Man’s Share by Yasmina Khadra.

June 7, 2015 17 comments

La part du mort by Yasmina Khadra 2004. English title: Dead Man’s Share translated by Aubrey Botsford

Disclaimer: I had to translate the quotes myself and I found it rather difficult. So be nice to my clumsy efforts.

En Algérie, les portes du salut sont aussi imprévisibles que les trappes du non-retour. Question de baraka. Ou vous l’avez ou vous ne l’aurez jamais. In Algeria, the doors to redemption are as unpredictable as the no-return doors. Question of luck. Either you have it or you don’t.

I read La part du mort by Yasmina Khadra a couple of months ago and I have to say I don’t remember much about the plot. But to be honest, the plot is not the most important thing in this book, which is odd for a crime fiction novel. Yasmina Khadra is the pen name of Mohammed Moulessehoul. It is made of his wife’s two first names. He was an officer in the Algerian army during the civil war in the 1990s and he had to hide his identity as a writer because of censorship. His wife supported him and signed all the publishing contracts in her name, on his behalf. Read more about his life, here in French and here in English.  I’m afraid it’s a lot more detailed in French than in English.

Khadra_mortWe’re in Algeria, on the verge of the civil war of the 1990s. Llob is a superintendant at Alger’s police department. Professor Allouche, an old acquaintance who manages a psychiatric ward asks him to come and visit him. He’s worried because one of his patients has been reprieved by an official commission and he’s free to go. Professor Allouche thinks a dangerous murderer is about to get lose on the Alger streets. He asks Llob to intervene to prevent a crime. At the same moment, Llob is concerned about one of his men, Lino. He’s been seen all over Alger on the arm of an unsavory woman, former girlfriend of an apparatchik. Lino is totally infatuated with her and spends too much money to cater her every whim. She’s close to several Algerian statesmen and this puts Lino in a dangerous position. Llob will have to do something about it.

The plot is interesting to follow but the book is fascinating for its picture of Algeria. It dissects the workings of the Algerian State. It shows the corruption, the inability to build a democracy after the independence. The picture is not pretty. The house seems rotten to the core. Former FLN fighters took the power and confiscated it. Their aura as independence heroes makes them untouchable. You don’t criticize a war hero. Khadra digs back to the year 1962 and the massacres of Harkis, the Algerians who were pro-French during the war. When the French left the country in 1962, most of the Harkis were left behind.

The country’s new found independence is built on blood. The war was ugly and its immediate aftermath just as much. The novel is full of thoughts about violence, its link with human nature. Khadra tries to understand its raw power.

On tue pour ne pas chercher à comprendre. C’est l’aboutissement d’un échec, l’émargement d’un désaveu. Le meurtre est l’inaptitude de l’assassin au raisonnement, l’instant où l’homme recouvre ses réflexes de bête fauve, où il cesse d’être une entité pensante. Le loup tue par instinct. L’homme tue par vocation. Il se donnerait toutes les motivations possibles qu’il ne justifierait pas son geste. One kills to avoid looking for explanations. Killing is the ultimate failure, the signing of a retraction. Assassination is the murderer’s inability to think, the moment a man resorts to his wild beast’s reflexes and ceases to be a thinking entity. Wolves kill by instinct. Men kill by vocation. Mankind could find themselves all the reasons they’d want, nothing can justify their killing.

There’s a lot of soul searching by Llob. He was a member of the FLN army too. His job puts him in contact with political power and with the small people. He sees the former fighters take advantage of their position in the country and get rich on the back of the country they fought for. He deplores that illiterate and undereducated men are in a position to exercise power. He sees the people on the streets struggle to have a decent life. Khadra brings Alger’s streets to life, like here:

C’est un gamin d’une douzaine d’années, maigre comme ses chances. Il porte un pantalon fripé, un tricot pourri et une bonne partie de la misère nationale sur les épaules. Les garçons comme lui sont légion. It’s a twelve years old boy, as slim as his chances. He’s wearing creased trousers, a rotten jumper and a good dose of the national misery on his shoulders. Boys like him are legion.

Llob is an interesting policeman with a fulfilling private life. That’s a change, as far as crime fiction is concerned. He’s been married to Mina for years, they have children and a peaceful family life. Llob is also an opportunity for Khadra to reflect on the place of women in the Algerian society.

Je me suis souvent demandé ce qu’il serait advenu de moi si Mina ne m’avait pas épousé. Elle est plus que ma femme, elle est ma belle étoile à moi. Rien que de la sentir près de moi me remplit d’une incroyable assurance. C’est fou comme je l’aime mais, dans un pays où l’interdit dispute au harem les palpitations de notre âme, il serait encore plus fou de le lui déclarer. I’ve often wondered what would have become of me had Mina not married me. She’s more than my wife, she’s my own lucky star. Just to feel her beside me fills me with an incredible dose of assurance. I’m crazy about her but in a country where social constraint and the image of harem fight against each other for the fluttering of our souls, it would be even crazier to make her that declaration.

Kind of sad, seen from my side of the Mediterranean.

I’m not sure Khadra is a real crime fiction writer. I think the genre allows him to voice his thoughts about Algeria at the time. It’s really well done and it’s a healthy read for French people. It’s an opportunity for us to read about the war in Algeria from the other side. It was an ugly war, one that left terrible scars on both sides and too much remains untold. Ironically, Khadra writes in French, the language of colonization is the one he chose to express his talent. I don’t know if his speaking Arabic brings something to his use of the French language but I loved his style. I have many quotes like this one:

Lorsque Bliss vous accueille sous le parvis du paradis, comprenez que l’enfer a déménagé. When Bliss welcomes you under the porch of paradise, you know that hell has moved in.

It’s even better in English when you throw the meaning of bliss in the middle of it.

I bought La part du mort by Yasmina Khadra at Quais du Polar thinking it was the first in the Llob series when it’s not. I was mistaken because it’s written on the back of the book, so please Folio, correct this for the next edition.

Apocalypse Baby by Virginie Despentes

October 7, 2012 26 comments

Apocalypse Bébé by Virginie Despentes. 2010. Available in German and Italian. Will be available in English (UK) in June 2013.

Virginie Despentes is a French writer born in 1969. Her first novel, Baise-moi (Do I have to translate?) was made into a film directed by Virginie Despentes herself and Coralie Trinh Ti. The film was first allowed for spectators over 16, then rated X (porn) and eventually rated for spectators over 18. I haven’t seen it, we’re in France, not in the US, when a movie is rated X, there’s really raw sex in there. I’m not particularly interested in that kind of movie. So she’s a writer I’d never read before and as you can easily imagine, political correctness is not in her line of work.

Apocalypse Bébé is her seventh novel; it was published in 2010 and won the Prix Renaudot. Valentine, 15, has disappeared. She’s the daughter of a rather famous writer, François Galtan. Her mother vanished from her life when she was a baby and her formidable grand-mother helped François raise her. Valentine is on the wild side of adolescence, she drinks, has sex with strangers, misses school and pretty much does anything to be intolerable and unmanageable to her father and mother-in-law. Valentine was under surveillance from an employee of a PI agency, Lucie, when she disappears. Lucie is a poor PI, she ended up in this job by chance and clings to it out of fear of unemployment. So when Valentine disappears, she’s a bit overwhelmed with her task to actually find her instead of just watching her. She decides to ask for the help of La Hyène, a specialist in such matters.

Valentine is the Ariadne’s thread between the characters we will discover. The chapters follow chronologically the researches Claire and La Hyène do to find Valentine. In such, the book borrows to thrillers. But it has also the tone of a road-movie, leading Lucie and La Hyène in the places Valentine used to go and to Barcelona.

In each chapter we change of point of view, seeing the moment through the eyes of Lucie, La Hyène, François, Claire, the mother in law, Vanessa, Valentine’s mother and different participants to the research. All the characters don’t fit in our world. Valentine, raised by an old vindictive woman and a self-centered womanizer as a father, has no guiding light, no frame of references to ground her. The story slowly unravels the last twelvemonth of her young life before her disappearance.

All the characters have their own issues. Lucie is dull, self-conscious and entangled in a life she follows instead of leading it. La Hyène is an incredible character, full of violence and lucidity. She flirts with illegality and doesn’t hesitate to use doubtful methods when she thinks they’re needed. She has no moral compass and we’ll know where it comes from. Galtan is a pathetic writer, always looking for attention from the media, not quite detached from his mother and married to a woman he cheats on regularly. Claire is desperate and frightened. She thought that living her life according to the rules would bring her happiness but it didn’t and she feels betrayed. Valentine scares her with her raw violence, her lack of manners. Through Vanessa’s family we have a glimpse of society in the banlieues and the way general rules don’t apply there.

With Valentine as a thread and the different characters as a pattern, Despentes weaves a tapestry of today’s French society. She’s abrupt, nasty and provocative. She shows the country behind the curtains and analyses it without kindness. She points out the violence in the suburbs, the underground world. The ending is chilling and resonates with the current news, but I can’t say more to avoid spoilers. Her style is powerful, using street language when the character’s voice needs it. She catches the essence of our time. She’s as provocative as Houellebecq but for me, she succeeds where he fails. Houellebecq is a man of the 20th century. The two novels I read are provocative but in the past. They are based on the angst of the white male with a language that didn’t hit the mark. Virginie Despentes is a feminist, a lesbian I believe, and her light on our world is resolutely in the 21st century. Like Houellebecq, her vision of our society is dark and rather desperate but unlike Houellebecq she shows it with the means of our time. Her characters aren’t depressed, they adjust.

It’s good to read a novel different from an intimate drama, different from the story of a dysfunctional family only. Valentine’s family is dysfunctional but it’s not the theme of the book. Max wrote an entry about Cosmopolis and the creative cowardice of Anglo-American literature where he explains that, to him, contemporary Anglo-Saxon writers fail to capture our age. In her own trashy way, I think that Virgine Despentes succeeds in this. Her novel doesn’t sound like the product of a writing class but the expression of her gut feeling about our world.

I sure want to read another of her books.

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