#WITMonth: The Pine Islands

Marion Poschmann: The Pine Islands, transl. Jen Calleja

On paper, this book seemed to have all the right ingredients to be much loved by me. A man – washed-up part-time researcher on beards Gilbert Silvester – has a midlife crisis, suspects his wife is cheating on him and decides to go to Japan to find himself. He embarks upon a road trip (a train trip) with a suicidal Japanese sidekick, following in the footsteps of haiku master Basho Matsuo and his travelogue Narrow Road to the Deep North. In actual fact, I thought this was a mongrel that was neither one clear thing nor another, and had no vivacity or charm of its own to make up for that.

It started off reasonably promisingly with the well-trodden but still potentially gripping ‘confused in Tokyo’ stance:

How had he ended up in this city without the slightest effort? What did he want to do here? … He was, he suddenly put it to himself, very far from everything that had ever been familiar to him. He had taken himself off into the unknown, into this most unfamiliar of environments, and the eerie feeling he was experiencing stemmed from the fact that this environment didn’t seem eerie in the slightest, simply functional, somewhat pretentious and somewhat sterile.

This confusion does not last long and does not stop Gilbert from becoming what the Germans call a Besserwisser (who knows everything better than you), an expert in Japanese culture, who presumes to lecture his travel companion, the improbably named Yosa Tamagotchi. Never mind the fact that Yosa is a native of Japan but barely speaks any English and therefore does not have much of a chance to explain himself.

Although Gilbert claims to be watching over Yosa to prevent him committing suicide, he actually takes him on a whistlestop tour of popular suicide spots and is equally obsessed with reaching Matsushima Bay, that scenic spot full of pine-tree clad islands, which seems to be catnip to suicidal Japanese. He even loses Yosa along the way, because he is too absorbed and smug about the haikus he produces at each stop in the journey, in imitation of Basho. Of course, he now counts himself among those who have imbibed all the subtlety of Japanese culture.

The traveller to Matsushima were lunatics, moon-stuck, eccentric. They composed their own sacred legends, everything was worthless to them apart from poetry, and for them poetry stood for the spirit’s path to nothingness. They were extremists, ascetics, mad for a certain kind of beauty, the fleeting beauty of blossom, the ambiguous beauty of moonlight, the hazy beauty of the secluded landscape.

The Pine Islands at Matsushima.

I tried to be generous and think of this book as a philosophical and metaphorical journey. Could the young, diffident Japanese man with the barely there beard be his Doppelgänger? A loser in Japanese society, Yosa is the perfect foil to Gilbert, who is pretty much a loser in his own society (and certainly when compared to his professionally far more successful, no-nonsense wife). By finding someone weaker than himself, someone he can hector and lecture to his heart’s content, Gilbert manages to recover from his midlife crisis. I’m not sure his wife was too impressed with the letters he sent her, though.

There are some lyrical passages and poetic descriptions, but do we really need a longish paragraph listing all of the different types of pine trees? What irked me above all was that the insight into Japanese society feels superficial, like the main protagonist has swallowed the guidebook and then regurgitated it. But that might be the author, who appears to pick on the most obvious Orientalist othering type of observations, while claiming a deeper understanding. If this was intended to be a parody of Eat Pray Love with a middle-aged male protagonist (which would have been a promising premise), then it’s just not funny enough.

I don’t think reading it in German would have made much of a difference – the translator seems to have done her best. So a bit of a disappointment and somewhat surprising that it made it onto the shortlist of the International Booker Prize.

The Tortoise and the Hare

A quick break from Brazilians in August. Several of my bookish friends had recommended the delightful Backlisted Podcast episode on The Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins, with special guest Carmen Callil of Virago fame. I listened, was instantly smitten and spent some time searching for the book online, although I had no intention of reading it soon. The subject matter, I thought, might be a bit too painful.

However, when I saw it arrive in the post, I told myself that I had recently read Dorothy Whipple’s Someone at a Distance, after all, which tells a very similar story. So I plunged in and just couldn’t stop reading.

Elizabeth Jenkins has that wonderful and all too rare quality of being able to write the perfect sentence or turn of phrase. That economical yet very densely packed style, that you need to read several times in order to fully appreciate. Her wry observational skills remind me of Jane Austen: this is what Jane Austen might have been writing if she had lived in the 1950s. (It’s not surprising to find out that Elizabeth Jenkins wrote a biography of Austen.)

It is an all too familiar story of the unravelling of a seemingly content marriage as the husband is attracted to someone else. For most of the book we might think of the conventionally pretty, extremely feminine people-pleaser Imogen as the hare, while the older, eccentric-looking, badly dressed and rather masculine Blanche is the tortoise who wins the race (i.e. the man) in the end. However, given that the man is the appallingly self-centred, self-satisfied and endlessly self-justificatory Evelyn Gresham, you may decide that Imogen is well rid of him and that Blanche is no winner after all.

Evelyn is that class of Englishman that you can still encounter at Oxbridge, active in politics or law or medicine, convinced that they are always right and that the world should be their oyster. Imogen at first glance may appear annoying in her passivity. I thought I would not get along with her at all, she is so very different to me: brought up to rely on her looks and social skills, no preoccupations other than being a wife and mother, so very keen to be of service to others, a bit dreamy, a bit too romantic. Yet somehow, the author manages to make you care desperately about her, although avoiding melodrama. Imogen has quite good psychological insights into other people, can sense when they are hurting or indifferent, but seems blind to the dangers in her own marriage. I could relate though to her avoidance of conflict, of being thought a nag, in her relationship with both her husband and her son.

The inevitable descent into divorce is so gradual and so unflinchingly described, it makes for some very painful reading. But what really broke me was Imogen’s realisation that her son Gavin is a mini-version of his father and that she has completely lost him a long while ago. Yet even there, the author gives us a hint that Gavin will not remain unmarked by his parents’ marriage breakdown.

Such a subtle, emotionally wrenching novel! It has given me an appetite to read more of the English classics of the 1930s-1950s. I might do a month of that when I do my geographical tours. After all, ‘the past is a different country’, isn’t it?

#WITMonth: Fernanda Torres

My foray into Brazilian women writers continues apace with an author who has been recommended by many other Latin American authors (at the Hay Festival panels, for instance). Fernanda Torres is an actress, scriptwriter and novelist. Her debut novel The End is a witty depiction of beach bum culture and machismo, and it has been translated by Alison Entrekin for Restless Books in the US. However, as far as I can tell, it hasn’t reached this side of the Atlantic.

Ciro, Neto, Alvaro, Silvio and Ribeiro are five aging Carioca friends, who have either grown up together or got to know each other at university. The book has an interesting structure: we enter the minds of each one of the five in reverse chronological order of their death. We see them old and decrepit, hear their regrets, witness their deaths… and then get to see and hear what their wives, their sons and daughters, their friends their doctors and their priest thought of them. We get a flashback into their lives and their friendship, their marriages, their divorces, their affairs, their triumphs, regrets and disappointments. We see many of the same events, the parties, the seductions, the quarrels, the missed opportunities through five different pairs of eyes – and quite often from the point of view of their long-suffering wives.

For these are clearly men of the older generation, who expect to get away with anything. Ciro is the charismatic Don Juan, emulated by all, but is the first to die. Neto is the only one of them who tries to be faithful to his beloved wife Celia (and she tries to remove him from his circle of friends) – but is left a widower and doesn’t quite know what to do with himself after that. Ribeiro spent his whole life on the beach, proud of his good looks, terrified of aging. Now he’s resorted to giving volleyball lessons to old ladies and stuffing himself with Viagra. Silvio is addicted to sex orgies and drugs and cannot stop himself from carrying on with his friend’s girlfriend, even though he is married. Alvaro is the one who survives them all and he has become a grumpy old man. Modern life and habits only annoy him.

I don’t separate my trash, I don’t recycle, I throw cigarette butts in the toilet, I use aerosols, I take long hot showers, and I brush my teeth with the water running. Screw mankind. I won’t be around to see what happens. I haven’t voted in theirteen years, I’m not responsible for the tragedy around me.

Alvaro is impotent: both literally and metaphorically. And of course he blames others for his predicament. His is the first story and in many respects his monologues are the funniest. We’ve all met Alvaros like that.

It was women who made me lose interest. Nagging, snivelling, needy. Women love to blame their own unhappiness on the next person. I never let them drag me in. The minute they get one sign of life from you, they shoot off a three-page monologue in your ear. Boy, can they talk, they never get sick of yakety-yakking… I don’t like women. Truth be told, I don’t like anyone. I did like Neto, Ciro, Silvio, and Ribeiro, though. Men don’t talk. We each say something idiotic, we laugh, we drink, and there you have it: a great night.

Men’s friendships seem puzzling to me at times. I have male friends who are excellent friends and who can talk about anything, including their feelings. But very often I look at the friendships based on drinking beer, playing video games and watching football matches, while avoiding anything but the most superficial exchange of information regarding their personal lives and I wonder. Replace beer with cachaca and qualudes, video games with beach life – and you have that mysterious default of life itself, shared experience, growing old together even if you don’t have much in common, which Fernanda Torres manages to capture with what feels me to like great authenticity.

There are plenty of laughable, cringe-worthy moments to divert readers. But, as we get to see the other perspectives, the satire acquires additional layers of depth and the comedy turns into tragicomedy. Are all of these men losers who deserve their come-uppance, or are all of our lives full of mistakes and bad choices?

The famous wave pattern of Copacabana beach, about which Alvaro says: ‘Stupid mosaics. They’re everywhere. Pour some concrete over the top and send on the steamrollers!’

A book soaked in the atmosphere of Rio and Copacabana beach (which appears in the very first paragraph), yet with universally recognisable ideas of masculinity and looking back at life with regret.

#WITMonth: Socorro Acioli

I’m sticking predominantly to Brazilian women writers this month, as the Women in Translation Month coincides with my Brazilians in August. The first of the authors is new to me. Socorro Acioli writes mainly children’s (or YA) literature, and this book The Head of the Saint, translated by Daniel Hahn, illustrated by Alexis Snell and published by Hot Key Books, seems to be targeted at the YA market. This does surprise me somewhat – although I know YA readers can be quite sophisticated, the subject matter here (all about poverty and corruption, religion as the opium of the masses, marriage and gender expectations) does not seem to hold much appeal for that kind of audience. It’s the first of Acioli’s books to be translated into English, and the reason that they were brave enough to do it has perhaps something to do with the fact that she developed the story for it while attending a writers workshop hosted by Gabriel Garcia Marquez some years ago.

Samuel is a young orphan, with ‘a thin, hungry body, almost a shadow’. He has been walking for days, ten hours a day, barefoot, nearly starving, because he has promised his recently deceased mother to go the town she originally came from, find his grandmother and father, and light a candle at the feet of the town’s patron saint. [There is a fashion in Brazil for giant statues on hills outside towns, like the statue of Christ in Rio.]

This is St Francis rather than St Anthony, and in a different location, but it gives you an idea of what we are talking about.

The problem is that when he reaches the god-forsaken town of Candeia, his grandmother chases him away, the giant statue of St Anthony has lost its head and the town appears all but abandoned, because the saint is believed to be cursed.

Samuel finds shelter from a thunderstorm in the head of the saint, which has rolled down to the bottom of the hill (although we will soon find out, in a very funny story, that it had not ‘fallen off’ but was a construction error and never made it to the top of the statue in the first place). He is bitten by dogs and unable to move for a while, so he believes he is starting to hallucinate when he hears voices singing and praying.

It turns out that a small group of women do still believe that St Anthony can help them to find their true love and get married. Samuel and a boy from town whom he befriends, Francisco, set out to make those prayers come true. Lo and behold, they get more and more requests, the saint’s reputation is transformed and Candeia starts to come alive again. This continues even when it’s discovered that Samuel was the person behind the ‘miracles’ (although some of the miracles are never fully explained, they just seem to happen as people start feeling more positive about things).

There is more to the story: Samuel finding out about his family background, and his quest to find the mysterious voice who fills his ears with a dream-like song in a language he doesn’t fully understand. There are funny moments – the origin of the name Madeinusa, for example – and poignant ones: families abandoned, men cheating, corrupt mayors, hired men to beat up people. Yet through it all, Samuel holds steadfast to the promise he made to his dying mother.

The book is described as ‘charming and heart-warming’, and it does have some similarities with Jorge Amado’s depiction of life – cheerful and energetic, despite the deep social inequalities. There is also something of the practical, straight-talking characters from Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series there. But, as with nearly all Brazilian literature I’ve encountered, magic and dreams and surreal situations are only a heartbeat away.

Reading & Events Summary July 2019

Not a lot of summer holidays for me this year, so my reading hasn’t been copious this month. [This may change over the next 3 weeks, when the boys are with their father in Greece.] Only 9 books completed, but most of them have been quite outstanding – and that is all thanks to the Russians. Their political leaders may be problematic, but boy, can their authors write!

I started off with a short, sharp satire Envy by Yuri (Yury?) Olesha. Isaac Babel’s Odessa Stories were a rambunctious delight, but with a disquieting undercurrent running throughout. The Strugatskys were in top form with Roadside Picnic, while Olga Grushin’s The Dream Life of Sukhanov captured a moment of tremendous change in recent history with great poignancy and lyricism. I haven’t yet reviewed Light-Headed by Olga Slavnikova (which I read in the French translation), but it’s another great piece of satire, although perhaps it could have been a bit shorter without losing any of its punch.

The Russians were excellent company. I will miss them and, yes, there were some communalities to all these authors (or perhaps I sub-consciously chose works that were of similar nature). Their humour is always rather dark and biting, their stories a mix of laugh-out-loud absurdity and profound sadness. The big questions of life are addressed, even though mostly in a roundabout way that decades if not centuries of censorship have cultivated to perfection. And I find their dash of surrealism not just tolerable but necessary and fun, unlike some works in the magical realism tradition.

In-between these hard-hitting books, I found my brain craved less demanding fare. I was either rereading either old favourites like the second book in the Ripley series by Patricia Highsmith (the one with the art forgeries) or else Adrian Mole (however, the trials and tribulations of a middle-aged Mole made me shudder rather than laugh). I also read two contemporary books focused on friendships, marriages, gender expectations and growing older.

I will probably compare and contrast Anna Hope’s Expectation with William Nicholson’s Adventures in Modern Marriage at some point, but although they were fun and easy to read (I deliberately avoided making too many comparisons with my own marriage or ageing), they were rather underwhelming. In any other month of reading, they might have scored higher, but when I put them up against the Russians, they seemed rather anemic.

5 women authors, 4 books in translation (Olga Grushin wrote her book directly in English). Next month will be all about women in translation and I am heading off to Brazil. My selection includes: Clarice Lispector’s short stories, Patricia Melo’s tale of revenge Lost World, Fernanda Torres’ account of old macho beach bums The End and, to balance things out, The Head of the Saint by Socorro Acioli.

If I get a chance to read any other women in translation, it will be Marion Poschmann’s The Pine Islands (set in my beloved Japan but written in German) and History. A Mess. by Sigrun Palsdottir (the latest Asymptote Book Club title, from Iceland). I might also read some Brazilian men, for balance. And, of course, I should read the books I borrowed from the library: Lissa Evans’ Old Baggage and Jonathan Coe’s Middle England, as well as dip in and out of Sylvia Plath’s Unabridged Diaries.

Beyond the reading, this month has been quite tiring: a lot of deadlines at work, both boys doing their Duke of Edinburgh expeditions, plus a lot of visiting of universities (which has its fun moments but involves a lot of driving and organising). I’ve done three things that go beyond the routine: went to the opera, attended an immersive theatre experience of Shakespeare’s The Tempest in Oxford and sat in the public gallery at a criminal trial at the Old Bailey.

How has your month been? Do tell me about your holiday plans! I’m not going anywhere on holiday just yet, but this song always puts me in a holiday mood. Thank you, Caroline, for sharing your flash fiction based on this song with me. Do check it out here.

Russians in July: Olga Grushin

You will find it hard to believe that Olga Grushin’s The Dream Life of Sukhanov is not a translated Russian novel. It has all the vicious satire mixed with wistful yearning, surreal dreamscapes mixed with realistic vignettes of life in the Soviet Union on the brink of change (in 1985) that you might expect from a Russian writer. That is because Grushin is a Russian writer, who grew up mostly in Moscow (with a short stint in Prague in her childhood). However, she now lives in the US and writes in English, so we have here an interesting hybrid: a Russian sensibility which can express itself directly in English, thereby avoiding that awkward ‘approximation’ that can sometimes occur in translation. (Not a slur on translators at all, but something we all know and struggle with.)

I may be the target audience for this kind of novel: interested in Eastern Europe and post-Communist states, passionate about political satire, remembering 1985 quite clearly. But let me try to be objective. After devouring this novel in less than three days, and covering it with little sticky bookmarks (always a good sign when it comes to my reading), I can sit back and say: ‘Darn, these Russians are such good writers!’

This is the story of the personal breakdown of a man, Anatoly Pavlovich Sukhanov, mirroring (or anticipating) the breakdown of the Soviet Empire. Ostensibly successful and well-respected, Sukhanov has reached the top of the tree in his profession as an art critic: he is editor-in-chief of the leading Soviet art magazine, Art of the World, he has written the definitive books decrying the decadence of Western art, he is married to the daughter of one of the most recognised painters of the school of social realism, he has a chauffeured limo to take him where he wants and a luxurious apartment. The author captures his self-congratulatory moment of contentment and dream life very well:

… At this instant… on a chilly August night in the year 1985, just after the rain had washed over the roofs of the city, the familiar and delightful world of Anatoly Pavlovich Sukhanov existed quite independently of the world outside. The éclair melted deliciously on his tongue, his tea was strong, just as he liked it. Row upon row of little jars containing concentrated tastes of the waning summer glittered evenly in cupboards all around him, and the air whispered of apples and cinammon… A seemingly endless expanse of rooms unfolded behind his back, their comfortable dusk scintillating with the honeyed lustre of the parquet floors, damask wall upholstering, golden-flecked book bindings, crystal chandeliers opening like flowers in the high ceilings… Somewhere in the recesses of his home, his two children were falling asleep, one a future diplomat, the other a future journalist, both equally gifted, and next to him, enclosed in the glowing circle of light, sat Nina, pale, dishevelled and so beautiful… This was his world , and it was safe.

But of course, it is not safe. A small change to his schedule and a chance meeting as he walks home alone after the opening of his father-in-law’s retrospective exhibition sets a series of events in motion which make, him call into question his entire life and the choices he made. He abandoned his own artistic aspirations for the safety and comfort of his current lifestyle but within just a couple of days, all that neatness and comfort is shown to be a sham built on false premises and lies which he told himself and others. His children despise him, his wife is disappointed by his cowardice and lack of artistic integrity, and professionally he is floundering, as political certainties and propaganda turn into shifting sands. He can no longer keep pace with the change but, above all, he is disturbed to find himself assaulted by memories from his childhood and youth.

Anatoly Pavlovich had always made a habit of gluing shut the pages of passing years, leaving at hand only some brief paragraphs for basic reference and a few heavily edited sunny patches for sentimental indulgence. Yet of late, memories were welling up in his soul, unbidden and relentless… bringing him closer and closer to the forbidden edge of a personal darkness he had not leaned over in decades.

The author achieves a rare feat. With her main protagonist, she creates a smug, self-satisfied party apparatchnik who demonstrates zero self-awareness and empathy with others, and gradually manages to make us feel sorry for him and understand the choices he made, even if we don’t agree with them. We see him as a man who has had to conceal his real self from his colleagues and friends for too long, who had believed in change before and been disappointed by false dawns and barely survived subsequent clamp-downs. His inner turmoil and his decision to compromise with the regime very much echoes the (fictionalised, speculative) portrait of Shostakovich that Julian Barnes presented recently in The Noise of Time. Unlike Shostakovich, Anatoly is less confident about his personal genius and whether that excuses anything:

Was I really so sure of my talent to risk everything for it – to turn my back defiantly on this chance, this last chance, of giving Nina the happiness she deserved, all in the vague hope that one day I would create, amidst the misery and disappointmment, something so unique, so beautiful, so great that it would fully justify our wasted lives?

Painting by Andrei Rublev, medieval icon painter. Little is known about the real artist and his life.

Any book which refers to Tarkovsky’s wonderful film Andrei Rublev is a winner for me. And this book certainly delves quite deeply into the role of the artist in society, their responsibility towards art and the future generations. Anatoly’s long-lost cousin comes to visit and they have one of those deeply Russian (i.e. profound, late-night, over several glasses of vodka) conversations about an artist’s mission. At first, as readers we are firmly on the cousin’s side: he loves Chagall and is seeking to rehabilitate him, while Sukhanov seems wedded to the Communist opprobium of surrealism and abstract art. But then Sukhanov surprises us:

[Cousin talking]…’your socialist realism and my religious painting have much in common… both have deep communal roots, and both serve a noble purpose – the good of the people, or the salvation of all mankind… In both too, the painter is an anonymous teacher of sorts, a compassionate man with a holy mission to educate, to enlighten, to show the way – a very Russian idea of the artist in general… so unlike the Western type of a solitary dreamer engaged in a private game of self-glorification. And, of course, both socialist realism and icon painting are concerned with an ideal, visionary future…’

‘What in the devil’s name does socialist realism have to do with it?’ interrupted Sukhanov. ‘I’m talking about art. Art is not about some common purpose or noble mission. It’s an expression of an artist’s soul, his individual, titanic struggle to rise above the ordinary, to speak a word unheard before, to extract an unexpected, mysterious, radiant nugget of beauty from the many obscure layers of our existence, to glimpse a bit of the infinite in everyday life – and truly great art comes to us like an ecstatic revelation, it sets our whole being on fire!’

If this makes the book sound very serious, full of philosophical discussions, then I am not doing a good job of conveying its compassionate humour and the lightness of touch of its satire. It’s a book that does not take itself too seriously, although it has serious messages to convey. Everybody struggles with the shifting sands of the collapse of an empire and its ideology. Yet there is also optimism in the air – could the promise of dawn be for real this time, could Sukhanov (and the younger generation) be about to be allowed to use their rainbow palette after all?

Well, we all know how that worked out… Better than in 1962 but still…

Panoramic view of Moscow, without the new skyscrapers.

One final note: Moscow is described with almost an elegiac lyricism: the city whose street names had undergone several transformations is about to undergo more change – change that will alter its structure, streets and buildings forever, far beyond a mere change of name. For more on the city on the cusp of change, see Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings for a great review of We Are Building Capitalism! Moscow in Transition 1992-1997 by Robert Stephenson.

Russians in July: Odessa Stories

Odessa Stories by Isaac Babel, translated by Boris Dralyuk (Pushkin Press)

Odessa was a lawless, cosmopolitan port town on the fringes of the Russian Empire, on the Black Sea coast, home to one of the largest Jewish populations in the world. I say ‘was’, because, although it remained an important trading port during the Soviet period, it was also savagely attacked during the Second World War (it was one of the four Soviet cities to be given the title of Hero City, together with Leningrad, Stalingrad and Sevastopol) and 80% of its Jewish community was exterminated during the first 6 months of the occupation.

With its Mediterranean architecture, mixed ethnic composition and gang culture, Odessa might remind you of Marseille or Naples.

Its great variety of ethnicites remain tangled even nowadays: it is part of Ukraine, with a majority Ukrainean population, but the main language spoken is Russian, albeit an idiosyncratic Russian with a lot of local slang. It is this rich Odessan argot that the translator Dralyuk tries to capture, and he makes the completely logical choice to use the language of American pulp fiction and films for that purpose.

Babel published these stories in the early 1920s, and they consolidated the myths about the city and its gang culture. Legendary gang leaders such as Sonya the Golden Hand and Mishka the Jap (from the turn of the 20th century) were admired as well as vilified, perceived as rebels and Robin Hood type of characters (when in actual fact they were probably ruthless monsters). They are still a popular source of stories not just locally, but throughout the Russian (and then Soviet) empire. Babel creates his own gang leader, the charismatic yet cruel Benya Krik, known as The King.

The first part of the book narrates (not in linear fashion, these are all distinct stories) the rise of Krik – how he intimidated the new head of police in Odessa by setting fire to the police station, how he first acquired the nickname The King, how he took revenge on those who messed up his deals. It also introduces many other colourful local characters: old gangster boss Froim the Rook, avaricious landlady and smuggler Lyubka the Cossack, Aryyeh Leib the elder of the almshouse, the hapless broker Tsudechkis who seems to misread every situation. Although it can be tricky keeping track of who’s who, these are stories in the best oral tradition, fun, full of sly humour, exaggerated, larger than life, designed to make the listener laugh or cry out in shock.

If the first part of the book is a celebration of diversity and virility, the second part shows what happens when virility becomes aggressive and when innocent bystanders get caught up in events. This is not about quarrels between gangs anymore and the style is much more serious and lyrical, showing the broad range that Babel was capable of.

The narrator here is Babel’s alter ego, a slightly idealistic young Odessan who recalls his childhood and youth in the city. While many of the incidents he recalls are quirky and funny, full of Jewish humour and family foibles, some of the texts, such as The Story of My Dovecote, are heartbreaking, showing the many inequities and dangers to which the Jews living in the city were subjected. A ten-year-old boy who has been saving up assidously to buy a pair of beautiful dovers gets caught up in a vicious pogrom on his way home.

I lay on the ground, the crushed bird bird’s innards sliding from my temple. They ran down my cheek, winding, dribbling, and blinding me. The dove’s tender gut slipped down my forehead, and I shut my only unplastered eye, so that I wouldn’t have to see the world laid bare before me. This world was smal and terrible. There was a pebble lying in front of me, a jagged pebble, like the face of an old woman with a large jaw; and a piece of string; and a clump of feathers, still breathing.

I’ll finish on a more cheerful note, a brilliant quote from the slippery trickster Benya the King himself, who tries to excuse himself for having killed someone ‘accidentally’.

Aunt Pesya, if you want my life, you can have it, but everyone makes mistakes, even God. That’s what it was, aunt Pesya – a huge mistake. But wasn’t it a mistake on God’s part to put the Jews in Russia, where they suffer as if they’re in hell? I ask you, why not have the Jews live in Switzerland, with nothing but top-quality lakes, mountain air and Frenchmen as far as the eye can see? Everyone makes mistakes, even God.

Let’s pretend we don’t know about Babel’s untimely death and his subsequent erasure from Soviet literature. Luckily, he has been rehabilitated now and we can enjoy this earthy, lively, somewhat madcap collection of stories, bringing a new streak of – well, I wouldn’t exactly call it realism, perhaps ‘heightened realism’, but certainly a lot less gloom and pessimism than some of the great Russian writers.