I prefer the lived-in look in a library, with a few higgledy-piggledy piles of books which give me an insight into the owner’s current preoccupations. But of course there are people who get interior designers to create libraries for them. Some of them do look quite tempting, but I doubt any designer would put up with my excessive expectations of indulging the books.
I don’t often write film reviews, but I went to see the film Atomic Blonde recently and came out of it with mixed feelings. In the end, I decided I was overthinking it all, I should just enjoy the style over substance. But it got me wondering how black people feel when they see another film about the American Civil War or slavery, or how Muslims feel when they see a film about terrorists, or Germans when they watch the triumphalist war films that get shown again and again and again on British TV. I’d like to see a Cold War spy thriller from the Russian or East European perspective. Although totalitarianism was undeniable in those countries, there was genuine fear of the West as well…
- Charlize Theron is smart, beautiful, utterly fearless and independent, strong but not superhuman, nuanced psychologically (for an action film) and has a wardrobe to die for. (Fits in with the comic book origin of the story, but I’m not sure anyone in the 1980s dressed that well). She absolutely rocks the Debbie Harry vibe. I also like the French/Algerian secret agent character played by Sofia Boutella. Incidentally, in the original comic book this character was a man, but it was a very smart creative move to change the gender.
- The backdrop of Berlin in 1989 is picturesque and atmospheric, with a good use of details (interiors of flats in East Berlin, screening of Tarkovsky’s Stalker, underground breakdance parties in the East vs. decadent nightclubs in the West). As the main characters wandered around from one secret meeting to another, you couldn’t help feeling that this was more of an advertisement for Berlin than anything else.
- The music was brilliant: recognisable 80s hits, although mostly predating 1989. You can’t go wrong with an opening and closing sequence featuring David Bowie (Putting Out Fire/Cat People to start off with, and Under Pressure for the end). Plus there were some suitable German titles as well: Nena’s 99 Red Balloons, Peter Schilling’s Major Tom (memorably featured as title theme for Deutschland 83 series) and Falco’s Der Kommissar (although not in Falco’s German version, sadly). However, when you read how complicated it is to get approvals for all these songs, you realise that some tough choices had to be made.
- The fight scenes were well choreographed and more realistic than in most superhero or spy movies (although at times too gory for my delicate stomach). There were people panting, struggling, stumbling, being hurt, not quite succeeding, bruises and plasters galore. Life as a spy is not glamorous and James Bond like (although there are some champagne moments): it’s ice baths and careful make-up to cover up the wounds. And lots of pointless walking about and trusting no one, apparently.
And then here are the things which I liked less.
A. The plot is incredibly convoluted and far-fetched. Which is fine, because it is based on a comic book. And in fact, if I am not mistaken, there was at some point in the 1980s a list of Western assets in Eastern Europe that intelligence agencies were afraid might end up in the wrong hands. (I can’t find any details about it, but if anyone knows about this, do let me know. I’m pretty sure I didn’t dream it up!)
B. The problem I always have with Cold War spy thrillers is that it was often far more boring than it’s depicted – but also more nuanced. Real spies would not go around killing members of the police – they were very keen to lie as low as possible. Having lived in an East European country myself at the time, I know that the ‘threat of repercussions’ was often more than enough to keep people in line. Self-censorship was a way of life. Spying was mostly done via bugging or denunciations from the inside. Real hunger (not so much in East Germany, which remained relatively prosperous) and greed for Western products was enough to enable small-scale denouncements (as hinted at by the black marketeer character of David Percival) – but these people seldom had anything of real value to offer. It would be more of a list of people who assembled at a church or demonstrated against the regime etc. The real hero of the film is Spyglass, who could no longer accept the Stasi policies but was aware of the devastating consequences this could have for himself and his family. The foreign spies? On the whole, they could parachute in and out without any trouble and enjoyed diplomatic immunity.
C. By November 1989, the situation would have escalated beyond the capabilities of any secret services. Most people in the former Eastern bloc are now convinced that the 1989 wave of revolutions was aided and abetted by Western intelligence agencies, and that they outwitted the Soviets in that instance. Some of the backbenchers of the Communist Party were no doubt approached and contributed to ousting their leaders, in the hope of gaining power themselves. However, there was also a degree of spontaneity to the mass demonstrations which caught them by surprise. Yes, they might have thought of the people as ‘cannon fodder’ to accelerate the fall of Communism and spread the capitalist ideology to new markets where they could sell their lesser quality goods (I remember those expired foodstuffs flooding our shelves in the 1990s). But, as always happens when you stoke the flames of revolutionary zeal, things don’t always work out as planned. Not everything went the way the Western powers had hoped.
Or perhaps I like to think that. So that assertion by the handsome East German contact Merkel(!) that he’s got people ready to cause trouble at any moment upset me…
Anyway, all this need not trouble you, the casual viewer. Go and enjoy the stylish noir vibe, dwell in 80s nostalgia, get the thrill of the action. Just try not to be facile in dividing the world into goodies and baddies once more…
This oral history of Soviet women’s experience of WW2 was compiled with sensitivity, patience and emotion by Svetlana Alexievich in the 1980s, updated in 2000 and has finally been translated into English by that indefatigable duo that is Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.
And what a surprising, moving and often shocking story it is! It provides an alternative view of war, from the point of view of women on the front line, as well as the lesser known point of view (in the Western world) of the terrible human cost of war amongst the Soviet army. It is an unforgettable virtuoso piece of storytelling and it left me in goosebumps, although I’d heard a few (much milder) stories from my own grandmothers.
Alexievich explains her mission in the foreword (and it was revolutionary back then, in the days before perestroika and the collapse of the Soviet empire): history is ‘in the street, in the crowd, in each of us there is a small piece of history’. She wants to give voice to those who have been ignored, forgotten, whitewashed out of history, who have been silenced or simply never been listened to. Not all of the women wanted to speak to her at first: for some, the memories were too painful, for others it was like opening up a dam. On the whole, she is received with warmth, made up of equal parts eagerness to share the untold stories, and reluctance to dwell too much on the details. They explain in simple terms, in language so stark and unadorned, yet with such vivid detail, what it means to survive such darkness.
Although few women veterans suffered the fate of the men who returned to war only to be sent to gulags by Stalin, it is quite shocking to read of the less than triumphant reception many of them experienced. There was no counselling, no treatment for post-traumatic stress after the war. Many of them received nothing except for a few medals – not even adequate housing which they should have been entitled to as war veterans. The state ignored or downplayed their contribution (perhaps out of a sense of shame that they had to resort to using women in their war effort), there was little support for these heroines and little effort to reintegrate them into society. In contrast to the protective and gallant way they had been treated by their male comrades at the front, many women had to pretend afterwards that they had never been in battle, because the men feared these women and longed to marry someone more feminine and untarnished by violence.
Unsurprisingly, women felt that the Great Victory came at a terrible human cost and sacrifice, and they are more aware of this and more willing to acknowledge it, while men were disposed to wax more nostalgic about heroic deeds and former Soviet greatness. And yet, one of the women says:
Life is hard… not because our pensions are small and humiliating. What wounds us most of all is that we have been driven from a great past into an unbearably small present.
In other words, they are beginning to wonder if it was all worth it. Yet, at the time, no one questioned the ideology. It was not just that their country was attacked, nor that they unquestioningly followed Stalin. They just felt they had to do something to help, they did not stop to think of themselves (or of their families or even their children) – they felt they were cornered and had no choice other than fighting the enemy as best they could. These women were not just nurses, doctors, bakers, laundrywomen, but also engineers, telecommunication experts, tank commanders, snipers, artillery and cavalry soldiers etc. They were everywhere and each one of them saw things that are almost unbelievable and unbearable. And, unlike men, they struggled far more with killing the enemy or watching their comrades die. One married couple reminisce about the war together and the husband says at one point that the grandchildren don’t want to hear his tales about historical detail, generals, facts, figures. They want to listen to her stories, which are all about feelings and momentary impressions.
War is first of all murder, and then hard work. And then simply ordinary life… how unbearable and unthinkable it is to die and to kill…
It’s the small details which make all the difference: the shoes which were several sizes too big and caused blisters; how they all had to chop off their braids; how uncomfortable it was to pee when they were in the tank with all the men; how they would kiss dying soldiers to soothe their pain; how there was no material to stop the flow of menstrual blood; how they could never bear the colour red after the war or buy meat from the shops.
There is a section on the mixed feelings the army had when they reached Germany. How tidy and wealthy the country seemed to them, to the extent where they couldn’t understand why these Germans had wanted to attack other countries. How they felt they would never be able to forgive them, yet they fed the frightened German children. The women whisper (in fear) about how their male colleagues did in many cases kill in revenge, rape and pillage, things which had been left out of the official history books – ‘are we allowed to mention that now?’.
There is bittersweet recognition that human nature did not learn from the past:
We dreamed: ‘If only we survive… People will be so happy after the war. People who’ve been through so much will feel sorry for each other. They’ll be changed people… We never doubted it. Not a bit.
Yet there were also instances of compassion and I want to finish on one of those, with the simple, unfiltered words of someone who has witnessed it herself. The last interviewee in the book tells the story of when she was carrying two wounded soldiers on her back, in turns, from the battlefield around Stalingrad. At some point, she realises that one of them was a German and starts getting angry with herself for making a mistake.
Should I go back for the German or not? I knew that if I left him he would die soon… And I crawled back for him… There can’t be one heart for hatred and another for love. We only have one…
Pictures are from Sputnik International and Global Research websites.
WWW Wednesday is a meme hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words. It’s open for anyone to join in and is a great way to share what you’ve been reading! All you have to do is answer three questions and share a link to your blog in the comments section of Sam’s blog.
The three Ws are:
What are you currently reading?
What did you recently finish reading?
What do you think you’ll read next?
A similar meme is run by Lipsyy Lost and Found where bloggers share This Week in Books #TWiB.
Chris Whitaker: All the Wicked Girls – to be reviewed soon on Crime Fiction Lover. I loved his previous book Tall Oaks, but this one is quite different, although it still depicts small-town America.
Svetlana Alexievich: The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II (transl. Pevear & Volokhonsky) – another wonderful choice for #WITMonth, this is oral history at its most riveting and poignant. Such strong women, but the scars are there. Review to follow.
Elena Varvello: Can You Hear Me? – a perfect fit for #WITMonth and #EU27Project
Mohsin Hamid: Exit West – this one doesn’t fit into any of my reading plans, but I saw the book at the library and I’d better read it before I need to return it. Besides, I can never resist a story about refugees. Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2017.
Margaret Millar: Collected Millar (Vanish in an Instant, Wives and Lovers, Beast in View, An Air that Kills, The Listening Walls) – this is for a feature I’ll be writing for Classics in September for Crime Fiction Lover, reviewing the work and legacy of Margaret Millar and suggesting the top five reads if you are new to her excellent suspense novels. The real and inimitable creator of domestic noir.
Have you read any of the above? And what are you currently reading or planning to read? Do share in the comments below. You know I am such a nosey parker!
I adored both of my grandmothers – the one I was named after, and the one who died just as I was due to give birth. Forceful women with strong opinions, difficult lives in the countryside through multiple regime changes, a backbone of steel even as their bodies betrayed them.
The goats bring sticks to her porch.
Her hair harbours leaves.
Brother Pig snouts amiably at the damp patch
beneath the hearth
where she – once more – spilled the soup,
bread chunks now softened enough
for her remaining three teeth.
She warms her swollen knuckles
against the earthen pot:
all she can hear are the mild-greedy snuffles
of her four-legged companions.
Soot caresses the damp wool
of jumpers hung to dry.
She no longer cares if mulberries stain
her thumbs or clothes, grey hair in its plait.
Fingers in knots, eyes milky clouds,
she no longer mops the muck she cannot sense.
Still slashes her way
through nonsense with a crackle of joints.
While bringing down books from the loft, I realised that I had some very ancient, almost forgotten books there, which have travelled with me across many international borders and house moves. Some of them are strange editions of old favourites, while some are truly obscure choices. I thought I might start a new series of ‘Spot the Weirdest or Most Obscure Book on my Shelf’. Although it can also be interpreted as ‘Books which don’t receive the buzz or recognition which they deserve.’ I would love to hear of anything on your shelves which you consider unusual or obscure or deserving of wider attention? How did you get hold of it? Why do you still keep it? What does it mean to you?
I’ve had to break this down into two posts, one for poetry, one for prose, for fear of it becoming a post as long as a novella. When it comes to poetry, there is a saying that ‘Romanians are born poets’ – a double-edged sword in the original Romanian, akin to the Irish kissing the Blarney stone. It means we are eloquent and make full use of our musical language and romantic/ fiery Latin disposition. But it can also mean that we have little of substance to say, but we are able to say it beautifully.
This is not the case with the three poets I mention below. They combine style with substance. They are perhaps not as famous as our ‘national’ poet, the arch-Romantic Mihai Eminescu, but they are my favourites. I’ve had to limit myself, however, to those that you can find (albeit with some difficulty) in English translation. I hope you will get a chance to discover at least one or two of them!
Lucian Blaga – Complete Works
My favourite Romanian poet (and certainly in my Top 10 worldwide), Lucian Blaga was a philosopher, writer, diplomat and translator, best known for the poetry he published between the two world wars. When the Communists came to power after WW2, he lost his position as a university professor because he refused to pledge allegiance to the new government. His philosophy was also considered too idealistic and suspect, so he was sidelined and not allowed to publish anything other than translated works. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature in the mid 1950s but the Romanian state protested against it. Luckily, by the 1980s when I went to school, he was once more studied in school, although we avoided discussing his philosophy. His poetry is best described as lyrical, highly spiritual, searching for the transcendence of self. He has a nostalgia for village life, for folklore, nature and the past, a Jungian yearning towards something greater than one’s conscious self. The language is musical and sensuous. This is an old volume of his all his poetical work, translated by Brenda Walker. And you can get a brief taster of my favourite poem as a teen, translated on my blog here.
George Bacovia – the grey poet
Bacovia is more of an acquired taste. Back in school, most of my classmates hated him, his gloomy depression, his seemingly endless rain-soaked landscapes. The one poem they could relate to was ‘Liceu’:
High school, graveyard of my youth,
You still make shiver…
This might sound light-hearted, but on the whole he is the poet of melancholia, a symbolist, a modernist, even a surrealist – fitting in well with other contemporaries of his such as Eugene Ionescu or Tristan Tzara. [Blaga was also a contemporary, but very different.] Bacovia is the poet of the urban landscape, of industrialisation, of smog and dirt. Unsurprisingly, he suffered from lung disease most of his adult life, which may have coloured his perceptions. There is a lot of talk of spitting blood, of decay both of the body and of nature, in his work. Naturally, it appealed to my dark, dramatic teenage self.
There is no full translation of his works in English, but you can get a flavour of his work, plus a short critique, here.
Younger than the other two, Nichita Stanescu lived through the tumultuous post-war world and the ascent of Communism. He chose not to go into exile, but never became a spokesperson for socialist realism either. His poetry is relentlessly soul-searching, scathing, at times enigmatic, at times openly angry. Intense and personal, unashamedly romantic yet at the same time political in the way that any meditation about a human’s place in the world is political. His lifestyle was the stuff of legends: a rebel who refused to play the literary awards game (although he won several, and was nominated for the Nobel Prize in 1980), he spent most of his life in a grubby little flat, with a mattress on the floor and at least two bottles of vodka a day. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that he died in 1983 at the age of 50 of cirrhosis. The last great self-destructive Bohemian, one might say. Here is a poem of his which every single Romanian person seems to know:
Tell me, if I caught you one day
and kissed the sole of your foot,
wouldn’t you limp a little after,
afraid to crush my kiss?…
You can find a selection of his poems translated by Sean Cotter reviewed on Words without Borders.
I had ordered some books a while ago, from many different sources (mostly from the US) and for two weeks the postman brought me nothing but bills and renewal notices. I began to think that he was avoiding the regular heavy book parcels. Yesterday four packages arrived all at once, so I take it all back and am full of admiration once more for my postie’s muscles and patience!
So here are my latest delights:
Sam Shepard In Memoriam
Other than Robert Redford in The Great Gatsby and Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia, I am not a great admirer of blonde male actors. But Sam Shepard was an exception. He was not only the epitome of cool yet tormented, but the fact that he could also write – and write so well – was a major attraction. I loved his plays back in the days when we were doing amateur drama, especially Fool for Love, but I never owned any of his books nor read any of his prose. So, saddened as I was when I heard about his death, I felt I owed it to him to buy Fifteen One-Act Plays and (recommended by Stav Sherez, who is so much more knowledgeable about American literature than me and called it one of the best books of recent times) Cruising Paradise, a collection of short stories, dialogues, diary extracts to portray remote or small-town America.
Open Letter Irresistible
To celebrate the 4th of July, American publisher Open Letter Books (a nonprofit, literary translation press established at the University of Rochester) has a 40% off sale, so I went on their site intending to buy just one book but came away with three.
I mean to read this Brazilian novel, translated by the ever-wonderful Margaret Jull Costa, as soon as it was shortlisted for the Best Translated Book Award, but I ordered from a German site and it never materialised. In the meantime, it has won that award, so this was my second attempt to get my hands on a copy, this time directly from the publisher. It’s a novel from the 1950s, set in the Minas Gerais region of Brazil (a former agricultural and mining heartland), and it describes the decay and fall of a patriarchal family. But it’s not your average historical family saga – it represents a move towards the modernism of Clarice Lispector, who was a close friend.
Dubravka Ugresic: Europe in Sepia (transl. David Williams)
One of the greatest Croatian and European writers of the past two decades, I love her more for her essays than her fiction. This is a collection of what one might call travel essays, but in her hands it becomes a meditation on the past, present and future of Europe, equally wise and well-informed, bitter and funny, whether she looks at history, politics or popular culture.
I couldn’t resist this contender for Latvia for my #EU27Project. This is apparently the story of a love triangle with political and historical dimensions, and Abele is one of the most notable young writers in Latvia, with a combination of lush descriptions, directness, evocative language and precision in mining psychological insights.
A best-selling Israeli novel set in a Tel Aviv apartment building, this novel examines a society in crisis, social and political ills, through the lives and problematic decisions of three of its residents. I will be reviewing this for Necessary Fiction, which has been such an inspirational website, introducing me to so much less highly publicised writing from independent publishers, both in English and in translation. This book will be coming out from Other Press in the US in October 2017.
Francis Beeding: The Norwich Victims (An Inspector Martin Mystery)
This is the book I ordered from Amazon and it was, quite honestly, a mistake. I had read a review of it on the Puzzle Doctor’s blog and was planning to get it on Kindle, but I pressed the wrong button. Never mind, it wasn’t too expensive, and I prefer reading in paperback anyway. Originally published in 1931, now reissued by Arcturus Crime Classics. This is the one that arrived within a couple of days rather than a month.
My keen fingers may have slipped a little and ordered a few more books which should be arriving within the next two weeks – Brazilian, German, Austrian, Japanese and American authors will be joining me presently.