Epic Fiction: The Great War by Aleksandar Gatalica

You don’t often get to see the First World War from the Balkan perspective, so Istros Books‘ publication of this monumental doorstopper of a novel, translated from the Serbian by Will Firth, deserves a round of applause. I was sent this book for review at Necessary Fiction quite a while ago, but to my shame I never got around to it. I have now come across my rather impressionistic review notes and am at least publishing them on my blog (far smaller fry, I do realise), because I can’t do much editing or updating directly online at the moment, but I can just about cut and paste a Word document (it only takes about an hour or two, which is far too long for such a simple process).

Not everyone had been a hero. Not everyone kept quiet.

A word of warning to all readers expecting a concise picture of life during WW1: this is a much longer and more ambitious book, a broad canvas aiming to cover all the diversity of experience of the First World War. It would be wrong to call it a collection of short stories or vignettes either, as characters and stories emerge, repeat with variations, are built upon and thus swell into a musical theme within an orchestra that for the most part remains tuneful. To continue with the metaphor, we find just the occasional cacophonous confusion.

We encounter here a  vast array of characters of all nationalities, from all walks of life, all occupations, both genders, all ages. Some of the characters are historical, although their stories have more than a touch of the apocryphal and fantastical. You will come across Archduke Franz-Ferdinand and his wife having a conversation in the mortuary after their assassination; Jean Cocteau gorging himself with buckshot so that he will attain the minimum weight to enlist in the army; even Rasputin and Lance Corporal Hitler make an appearance. But it is predominantly the story of ordinary folk –  hustlers, con men, pimps, soldiers, volunteers for the Serbia Blue Cross, tradesmen in Istanbul  – and their more fortunate or wealthy peers: opera singers, society beauties, students, industrialists, doctors.

Portrait of the author, from his website.
Portrait of the author, from his website.

An aura of doom and the burden of history permeate this work, lightened every now and then with odd anecdotes, touches of humour, human-interest stories.  The initial conviction that ‘one shot, one shout and one charge would resolve everything’ gradually gives way to incompetence of the military commanders, failures of the Red Cross, disillusionment of ordinary soldiers and civilians.

Here are a few scenes which particularly stuck to my mind:

Major Miyushkovich’s beloved wife Ruzha abandons him on the first day of war. He dies heroically in battle.

Russian muzhik soldiers severely wounded, given painkillers in hospital, suddenly start speaking German, discoursing on erudite topics. However, the author points out that ‘men groaned and died in the same language – in the east and in the west’.

A young Polish student and a girl dying of tuberculosis find love and refuge, squatting in a Parisian apartment whose owners have fled . They scavenge for food and make love like the last people on earth. They have one week of happiness before death and the military strike them down.

Fritz Krupp, wannabe artist with insufficient talent (shades of later world wars there?, despises Picasso and the others who have made a creative home in Paris. So he becomes a bomber pilot, keen to bomb Montmartre and Montparnasse into oblivion.

The humour and lightness of the early anecdotes give way to descriptions of the relentless drudgery, harsh winters, typhus epidemics of later years. There are grotesque touches like the horse with dogs in his belly, being fed them with minced meat from dead comrades (a form of horse cannibalism, which is shocking but sadly all to believable).

Fritz Haber is a German chemist who produces poison gas to better serve his country (yes, he has bought into all that ideological discourse). A little cloud of chlorine from Ypres mounts up and travels all the way to Karlsruhe and kills his wife Clara, who was opposed to his using science to bring about death.

French edition of the novel.

Not even the end of the war holds much hope, because, as we now know, the lessons were not learnt from its unclear, messy ending. And then the Spanish Flu in its immediate aftermath: the smallest and most sinister anti-hero of this novel, who does not distinguish good from evil, who attacks with abandon.

A book to dip into and read over a longer period of time, rather than straight through from cover to cover, it provides an alternative picture to the First World War, quite different from the dominant Anglo-French interpretation. A necessary read, indeed!

 

Crime Fiction in Holiday Locations

Everyone loves a little crime in holiday places – as long as we are reading about it and dreaming of a beach, rather than directly affected by it. This must be the reason why there are so many crime novels set in popular holiday destinations – or combining popular holiday activities, such as cruise ships. As it so happens, four of the books I’ve recently read take place in various parts of the Mediterranean. All four of them are what I would call ‘enjoyable holiday reads’, with a few disquieting elements to keep you on your toes, but not the kind that you will remember for years to come.

disappearanceAnnabel Kantaria: The Disappearance  – cruise ship

This barely qualifies as crime fiction, although it has a mystery and a missing person at its heart. It is really a book about family secrets and the dangers of allowing them to fester. It is also a loving recreation of India in the 1970s (where the main protagonist, Audrey, went to work after the death of her parent and met her husband) and Greece in the present day, where Audrey has invited her twin children on a cruise around the Greek islands to celebrate her 70th birthday. But then, on the night of her birthday, Audrey goes missing, suspected of falling overboard.

I first encountered the author online as a fellow expat writing about her experiences of living abroad, and there is plenty of flavour and colour to her descriptions of life as an expat in India. Despite some predictable moments, the book as a whole slid down the reading throat like a nice glass of Bailey’s or Amaretto: rich, indulgent, smooth. Perfect summer reading.

distresssignalsCatherine Ryan Howard : Distress Signals – cruise ship

Adam Dunne is a rather self-absorbed 30 year old who still dreams of becoming a great writer. He has said no to a regular job or a painful climb up a career ladder, a mortgage, a family and kids – so far – and has been encouraged and supported (often financially too) by his girlfriend Sarah. Then he finally manages to sell a script to Hollywood (pending some rewrites), but he has no time to celebrate, because his beloved Sarah – who had gone to Barcelona on a business trip – has vanished into thin air. Her phone is switched off, nobody seems to know about her whereabouts and the hotel she was staying at claims she only stayed there one night. Adam initially keeps trying to calm himself (and Sarah’s parents) down with plausible excuses, but becomes frantic when it becomes likely that she disappeared on board a cruise ship. The author knows the holiday industry pretty well and she has found the perfect fertile ground for crime on board a cruise ship. I had never thought about it before, but the murky borders of jurisdiction, the coming together of an international crowd for a short period of time, the sheer size of those ships making it quite easy to ‘disappear’ people… It has certainly made me more determined than ever to never go on a cruise!

ghostrunnerParker Bilal: Ghost Runner – Egypt

Makana is a former police inspector from Sudan, who has found refuge in Cairo. He lives on a rickety houseboat on the Nile and tries to forget the cruel death of his wife and young daughter back home. He makes a living as a private investigator and, as the story opens, he believes he is involved in a routine surveillance job to appease a jealous and suspicious wife. However, it turns out that the ‘errant’ husband is in fact visiting a badly injured girl in hospital, the victim of a horrific arson attack. This leads to a more wide-ranging and unpleasant investigation involving the girl’s father, who was associated with terrorism, and their home town of Siwa, an oasis in the Sahara Desert. Makana discovers the law means little in this frontier town on the edge of the great desert, nor can he count on the local police for help.

In this part of the world, the past is never quite buried, and has a way of rearing its nasty head and influencing the present. Not exactly a cheery holiday read, this novel blends topical events with a solid mystery and a noir atmosphere despite the relentless, blazing sun.

highsmithPatricia Highsmith: The Two Faces of January – Greece

January is not the name of a girl: it is the month in which the novel is set, but it is also an allusion to the two faces of Janus, and to the two main male characters, who in many ways represent two sides of the same coin. Chester MacFarlane is a con man, with many names and identities: he runs pyramid schemes, investment frauds, and disappears with his clients’ money. He is now on the run in Europe with his beautiful young wife Colette. Rydal Keener is a young American who quarreled with his father when he decided to come to Europe and stay there without doing anything much to build a career for himself. He seems to be drifting through life, but has a thirst for adventure which makes him somewhat foolishly rush in to help Chester when a Greek policeman catches up with the glamorous couple. After that fatal moment, they are fated to stay together, even as temptations abound and tempers fray.

This is not top-notch Highsmith, but even in her more average work, she remains the mistress of the innuendo, the slow psychological burn and strange love/hate competitive relationship between men. It’s not top-notch Highsmith, but it’s an interesting playing around with certain tropes and scenes, almost like a dress rehearsal for Ripley. I enjoyed the Greek setting and the unreliability of each one of the characters. Sometimes it’s completely opaque what motivates them – but isn’t real life like that too? Chester and Rydal are the two faces of the same coin, and you can’t quite decide which one of them is more despicable – and yet there is a ‘can’t live with or without each other’ aspect to their relationship which is deliciously subversive, smart, sinister story in its own right, well worth a read.

 

 

Summary of Reading April 2016

housesmyrna 1974 maylis allthingscease

 

 

 

 

Over the next few days, I’ll be busy with the Salon du Livre Book Fair in Geneva, rehearsals for my older son and organising a sleepover for my younger one, so I don’t think there will be any time left over for reading. So here is my monthly wrap-up, a bit earlier than usual.

  1. Matt Johnson: Wicked Game
  2. Cathy Ace: The Corpse with the Garnet Face
  3. David Peace: 1974
  4. Paul Kalanithi: When Breath Becomes Air
  5. Tatiana Salem Levy: The House in Smyrna
  6. Lisa Owens: Not Working
  7. Sarah Hilary: Tastes Like Fear
  8. Tammy Cohen: When She Was Bad
  9. CL Taylor: The Missing
  10. Paolo Sorrentino: Youth
  11. Jean-Michel Guenassia: Le Club des incorrigibles optimistes
  12. Elizabeth Brundage: All Things Cease to Appear
  13. Marina Sonkina: Expulsion and Other Stories
  14. Samantha Hayes: In Too Deep – review to appear on CFL
  15. Maylis de Kerangal: Reparer les vivants
  16. Jax Miller: Freedom’s Child
  17. Alain Farah: Ravenscrag
  18. Elena Ferrante: The Story of a New Name
  19. Linda Wagner-Martin: Sylvia Plath: A Biography
  20. David Mitchell: Back Story

A few figures:
For review on CFL: 4
Crime fiction: 10
Women or BAME writers: 15
Translated or foreign language: 6

Cheating a little bit – the first four were read just before April started but after I’d written my March post, so I had to move them to this month. And just for my own accounting, I wanted to see the source of each book this time: 5 review copies from publishers, 6 requested on Netgalley, 6 bought, 3 library loans.

Books donated this month: 17. Books bought (aside from the slip-up at Quais du Polar): 11. At this rate, the book shipment back to the UK is going to be quite massive…

tasteslikefearCrime fiction pick of the month: Tastes Like Fear by Sarah Hilary, with Jax Miller’s book as an Honourable Mention  (I need to review it, but suffice it to say it’s got a memorable voice).

Overall Pick of the Month: I won’t even attempt to select between the stand-out reads of this month. Here are the ones which impressed me most (in addition to the crime fiction picks above): David Peace, Tatiana Salem Levy, Elizabeth Brundage and Maylis de Kerangal. I still owe you reviews of the latter two.

 

 

Coming of Age: Then and Now, in Many Countries

I was amused and charmed by the somewhat meandering vignettes of the millenial generation in Lisa Owen’s recent release Not Working. As luck would have it, I had just recently read some other books about growing up and youthful malaise, although all of them took place in other countries and other decades, so I decided to have some fun comparing all of these.

notworkingLisa Owens: Not Working

I expected this to be a bit aimless and self-pitying – the comparison with Bridget Jones did it no favours in my eyes. But I found it sharply observed, funny and perfectly encapsulating the vacancy and emptiness of much of what we take for ‘desirable, sensible goals’ in contemporary life. It is a great portrait of a generation who has (had to?) become cynical before its time.

Claire is in her mid 20s and has quit her meaningless office job to find her ‘true passion’ in life. The problem is, she is not quite sure what that might be, and fears that she may not be cut out for ‘great passions’ at all. Content to amble around, stay in a reasonably comfortable relationship, not embark on anything too adventurous, procrastinate for hours – Claire is our own worst self, someone we can all relate to (if we are being completely honest). She is also much brighter and more self-aware than the hapless being she appears to be, which makes her self-mockery endearing rather than infuriating.

The book has no plot to speak of (although there is some character development, as Claire realises just how important her family is to her and makes up her own mind about the buddleia in her garden), but it really is fun to read, full of acerbic observations, great wit and accurate observations, such as:

Economics
What actually becomes of all this terrible art for sale in cafes, costing the earth?

Job description
Words like ‘maestro’ and ‘superstar’, twinned with ‘administrator’ and ‘volunteer’.

I spend the morning planning an elaborate meal for Luke, composed of recipes from five different websites.
‘So, what have you been up to today?’ Luke asks through a mouthful of Slow-cooked Pulled Pork and Super Zingy Slaw, breaking off a chunk of the Best Jalapeno Cornbread to mop up what’s left of the sauce from the Mac ‘n’ Cheese With All the Bells ‘n’ Whistles.

The same, single article ‘How to Find Your Dream Job’ advises me to: burn all my plans, tear up the rulebook, shop around, try on different hats, county my blessings (and gifts), be kind to myself (yet realistic), listen to my dreams, follow my heart (ditto the path less travelled), move the goalposts, change gears, consider my options, watch out for signs, test the water with a toe before diving in headfirst, take the economic pulse, listen to my elders, ignore all advice.

Credit Photo: Paul Winch-Furness / www.paulwf.co.uk
Credit Photo: Paul Winch-Furness / http://www.paulwf.co.uk

Jean-Michel Guenassia: Le Club des Incorrigibles Optimistes

It’s 1959 and young Michel is discovering rock’n’roll, the first tremors of love and the war in Algeria. In the back room of a Paris bistro, he gives in to his passion for table-football and meets anti-Communist refugees from behind the Iron Curtain, as well as left-leaning philosophers such as Sartre. They loosely form a club, and they might be called optimists because, despite all the terrible news which engulfs them (deaths and desertion in Algeria, poverty and loss of trust and family in Russia and Hungary, broken dreams and love stories), they still hope in a better future.

Although we do hear details of Michel’s family and school life, his preparation for the baccalaureate, losing and making new friends, this is not so much the story of an individual coming of age. Instead, it seeks to paint a fresco of the times (late 1950s to early 1960s) and is framed by the story of the narrator meeting one of the former club members in the present day for the funeral of Sartre. Many poignant and sad personal stories are contained in its pages, but I have to admit this took me longer to read than normally. Not just because it is quite a chunky book, but it didn’t have me rushing back to it every time I put it down (although I did enjoy being transported into that world whenever I picked it up).

diaryeliadeMircea Eliade: Diary of a Short-Sighted Adolescent

By way of contrast, there is very little to place Eliade’s teenage narrator within a specific historical context, although the sense of place – a more leisurely-paced Bucharest – is beautifully conveyed. Surely post WW1 Romania was a hotbed of political and cultural turmoil, but the author does not choose to explore that at all. The narrator shows all the geekiness, neediness and self-absorption typical of adolescents everywhere, and anyone who has been young will recognise many of the problems he describes with school, approaching girls, grandiose plans for becoming famous, procrastination when it comes to revision, and beating one’s self up for all sorts of failures. So far, so similar to Not Working, except that the protagonist here is 15, studies insects and discusses philosophy and French romantic poets.

The spice of the story comes from the contrast between the erudite and polyglot Mircea Eliade, philosopher and professor of comparative religion at the University of Chicago, and the awkward, geeky adolescent he portrays in this lightly disguised memoir of his high-school years. Although Eliade himself never considered the book worthy of publication (only a fragment was published during his lifetime), it is fun and remains surprisingly fresh after all these years (although the English translation tends to reinforce the ‘period feel’ rather than the timeless nature of the story). A full review of this will appear in May on the Necessary Fiction website, but this is the nearest in spirit (and self-mockery) to Lisa Owen’s book.

storynewnameElena Ferrante: The Story of a New Name

It’s hard to remember that the girls populating this second volume in the Neapolitan series are only adolescents themselves as the novel opens. Just 16 and already married, Lila soon discovers her mistake. She has given up her education and ambitions for financial security and involvement in the family business. Meanwhile, the narrator Elena struggles to live up to her teacher’s expectations at school and escape from her working-class neighbourhood in Naples. So this too is very much a coming of age story, coupled with loss of innocence and expectations.

I was impressed with Elena Ferrante’s standalone novel Days of Abandonment, but resisted this tetralogy for quite some time. I was afraid that it would be the kind of ‘family saga’ of working-class girl made good type (Catherine Cookson, Barbara Taylor Bradford) which I enjoyed in my teens, but don’t read much now. After reading this book (without reading the first in the series, so perhaps I am coming to it ‘cold’), I am not quite as won over as all the hype of ‘Ferrante Fever’ would have us believe.

Not that it is bad – certainly not trashy, throwaway fiction. I loved the realistic descriptions of the ebb and flow of female friendships, the need to both escape one’s background and yet never quite fitting in anywhere else, women giving up on their dreams and yet persevering, the resilience and vulnerability of youth. What is perhaps startling and new to English readers is the passion and candour that comes across, as well as all the exotic detail of life in poor neighbourhoods of Naples in the 1950s/60s. For someone who has heard and seen first-hand the rural poverty that my mother was trying to escape from (very similar story to Elena but in Romania of the same time period), and who has listened to many similar stories of macho men and resilient women, this is all familiar ground. Furthermore, Romanian women writers of the 1930s whom I devoured in high school had already opened the way to exploration of feelings, sexuality, self-improvement and even feminism. Authors such as Cella Serghi, Hortensia Papadat-Bengescu, Martha Bibesco, or later ones such as Gabriela Adamesteanu, Dora Pavel, Doina Rusti or Nora Iuga have a similar ability to bring unbridled passion and unfettered feminine wit to a story. I’m not claiming that all these writers are better or even equal to Ferrante – merely that they are treading similar paths.

 

Honesty, Likability and Book Reviews

Before I had my internet outage last week, I read a remarkably honest article about reviewing books when you have vested interests (are part of the publishing industry or are an author yourself). Sadly, I cannot remember the author nor find the article to link it here, but it left quite an impression. I started wondering just how honest my own reviews are, what my own hidden motivations are. I am about to write something that is deeply uncomfortable to think about, something which may not endear me to all those involved in publishing. But here goes…

Books, from wired.com

My primary purpose, when I started reviewing books on my blog, was to give an unvarnished opinion of what I had liked and disliked about a certain book, while recognising that it’s a matter of personal taste, that my taste is not infallible (far from it!), but I felt that I owed potential future readers full honesty.

Are you Kafka? No? Not sure about 5* then...
Are you Kafka? No? Not sure about 5* then…

I didn’t realise that star ratings are perceived very differently on Amazon and Goodreads than they are in my mind. To me, 5 stars is only for the truly exceptional (just to give you an idea: my favourite authors of all time, like Kafka, Virginia Woolf, F. Scott Fitzgerald, have got some 5 stars, but not for all of their books). Four stars is very high praise indeed, while three stars is a good, solid read, but it doesn’t really stand out in any way. Two is ploddingly average but readable, while 1 means I did finish it but rather regret the time wasted. And no stars at all means I cannot even begin to discuss the many, many things which I disliked about the book.

Then I discovered that many of my friends (in real life, on blogs or twitter) were authors and pressing their books upon me for review. I don’t want to hurt them, I know how much work goes into writing, finishing, editing a book. Belatedly, I also discovered that anything below a 5 star tends to provoke an author’s ire, however cleverly I argue my case (and point out both pros and cons). Admittedly, authors who’ve been in the business for a while and have had some success tend to be more … well, relaxed and professional about it. Many of them are still speaking to me after I gave them 3 or 4 star reviews on Crime Fiction Lover, and I think some publishers are resigned to the fact that I very, very seldom give out a 5 star. Which makes that rare bird all the more precious (to my mind). After all, if everything is a 5 star, how on earth can we ever decide what to read next?

However, I have been known to write to publishers or authors (particularly debut authors or self-published ones, who I feel need more support and understanding) and say: ‘I cannot give your book a good review. Would you like the honest feedback or would you rather I didn’t review it at all?’ Most of the time, invisibility is preferable to notoriety.

stars

I also have another problem with the swathe of 5 star reviews: they become a fashion statement, a self-fulfilling prophecy, a buzz – whatever we choose to call it. Once the first few reviewers have declared it a ‘wonderful work of fiction’ or ‘the next Big Thing’ (with Girl or Wife or Daughter or Husband or Man or Twins in the title), all the others can jump on the bandwagon and echo those sentiments. It’s called herd instinct or crowd control. If one influential person whose opinion I generally trust has declared this to be a work of genius, there must be something about it… And if I didn’t like it, then there must be something wrong with me, surely? Of course, this is exactly what publishers and publicists are hoping for, but where does our duty as a reviewer ultimately lie?

Book launches.
Book launches.

Each reviewer will have to decide this for him or herself. It is hard to give up the love-fest of ARCs and invitations to book launches and retweets or mentions by publishers, so it’s understandable that we don’t want to anger the publishers with less enthusiastic reviews. Oh, the embarrassment of meeting an author whom you slated at the next literary festival and having them hint that they’ve read your blog! Besides, I am truly grateful for the opportunity to read so many new and exciting books (for free), even if not all of them make me jump with joy. I couldn’t afford to read all of them otherwise…

Things get even more complicated if we aspire to be authors ourselves. Will we alienate agents, editors and fellow authors if we give them a bad review? Will they take revenge on our own humble offering in the future? And, anyway, who are we to criticise those who are more experienced, more talented, better connected than us? They clearly know something we don’t.

Of course there are reviewers who can get genuinely enthused by most of the books they read. I am not accusing anyone of hypocrisy. But I have discovered something very much like diplomacy in certain situations in my own reviews: ‘a page-turner’ may be my code word for ‘doesn’t require much thinking on my part’, ‘a profusion of characters which might confuse readers’ is another way of saying ‘stock stereotypes and far too many of them’. I’m not entirely proud of that, but it was my choice. I’ve opted for politeness over brutal candour when things are negative, but you can also rest assured that every word of praise is absolutely well-earned and honest.

From classicrarebooks.co.uk
From classicrarebooks.co.uk

As for who gets the completely raw and unfiltered review nowadays? Well, I’ve noticed the classics or dead authors are coming in for their fair share of bashing! Jane Austen, the Brontës, George Eliot, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Proust… they’re all fair game. It is also far easier to be honest about books in translation (because the author is less likely to read that review?). Finally, it is far easier to express your opinions about books which are not in your favourite genre, Caveats work a treat: ‘I don’t usually read science fiction, but…’ or ‘I don’t have much experience with YA, but…’

So what can you expect from me? Where do my responsibilities lie? With readers like myself, who have perhaps spent too much money and time to acquire the latest bestseller and are very sorely disappointed by it. With authors, who should know I will never get my fangs out for the sake of being different, courting controversy, getting more blog hits or seeking revenge. In fact, I don’t do fangs. I try to be fair, to remind everyone that I am just one solitary voice of opinion and bring my own biases to the table. But when I say ‘outstanding’, when I urge everyone to read a book, you can be sure I mean it from the bottom of my heart.

From red24management.com
From red24management.com

 

Reference Book to Treasure: Crime Fiction in German (Der Krimi)

crimeficgermanIf you have any interest at all in German literature or in crime fiction, you will enjoy leafing through this erudite and yet still very readable collection of articles. Or, if you are slightly obsessed like myself, you will read it from cover to cover and then start all over again. And I’m not just saying that because I was flattered to receive an electronic proof copy by the University of Wales Press. It is that rarest of creatures: an academic study which is also very enjoyable and could become a bestseller!

What is remarkable about the book is the breadth and depth of topics it covers. In terms of breadth, no stone is left unturned. The editor Katharina Hall (known to many crime fiction fans as Mrs. Peabody from her much-loved blog) and the other contributors cover not just the obvious subject areas (West German, East German, Austrian and Swiss crime fiction), but also lesser-known categories such as women’s crime writing, historical crime fiction, the place of Africa in German crime fiction and even television dramas. Furthermore, the definition of crime fiction itself is deliberately broad, and includes literary authors writing crime-infused experimental or social novels (Hans Fallada, Peter Handke, Elfriede Jelinek) as well as more traditional crime.

In terms of depth, you will find here not only comprehensive overviews of the development of crime fiction in each of the German-speaking countries, as you might expect from an academic tome, but also a focus on specific writers or books. Martin Rosenstock’s analysis of Dürrenmatt, for instance, is beautifully nuanced, pointing out how the Swiss author breaks all the classic formulas of the crime genre, whilst also poking fun at the self-aggrandising Swiss myths of neutrality, wealth and historical heritage.

Each chapter (or article) is followed not only by endnotes and a select bibliography of books (mostly those available in translation), but also recommendations for further secondary reading. Where no English translations are available for a work cited, there is a small extract in English at the end of the chapter as well, just enough to give you a flavour of the original and whet your appetite for more. This is also one of the stated aims of the book: ‘to provide readers with a springboard for further reading, viewing and research’. There is also an excellent table at the front with the chronology of crime fiction in German, including political, criminal and publishing milestones from 800 until the present day.

I will not attempt a blow-by-blow account of each topic, but allow me to highlight just a few.

Viennese tram. No relation to the book, but couldn't resist smuggling in that photo.
Viennese tram. No relation to the book, but couldn’t resist smuggling in that photo.

I may be slightly prejudiced in favour of Austrian writers, but I certainly appreciate the article on the odd humour and often extreme experimentation by Austrian authors, written by Marieke Krajenbrink, and have already ordered several books from her list of recommendations.

Thanks to an article Katharina Hall agreed to write for Crime Fiction Lover, I had previously experienced her encyclopedic knowledge of crime fiction dealing with different aspects or periods in German history (mostly the Nazi period and the reunification of the country after the Cold War). It was a pleasure, however, to read a more thorough analysis of the topic, as well as a detailed discussion of two fantastic (and very different) novels: Fallada’s Alone in Berlin and Simon Urban’s Plan D.

Finally, I cannot forget the fascinating articles which open up an entirely new world to me: Julia Augart’s analysis of the so-called Afrika-Krimi and Faye Stewart’s research on the Frauenkrimi (women crime writers). I had never heard of the first as a subgenre, and never stopped to compare the themes and styles of male and female German crime novelists.

In conclusion, either this book is a great exception to the rule, or else academic books have evolved considerably since my time, because I find it very approachable indeed. It achieves that wonderful balance between ‘speaking to ordinary readers’ without ‘dumbing down’. I’ve learnt something new in every single chapter and yet, try as I might, I can’t find any pretentious or obscure references which so often plague literary criticism. I was hoping for some Lacan or Foucault or at least Wittgenstein to throw my arms up at, but no! It stays admirably grounded throughout.

Congratulations to all the contributors and editors involved in this project. There is nothing quite like it in the English language. I will certainly treasure it and return to it as a work of reference for many years to come.

Tatiana Salem Levy: The House in Smyrna (transl. Alison Entrekin)

housesmyrnaBrazil is in the news today with the impeachment of its president – and will be in the news soon again with the Olympics (and will all the stadiums get finished in time).  Its troubled history and on-off economy are easy to mock; the violence inside and outside its favelas is dramatic. And yet it also remains a country of extraordinary beauty, passion, music and literature. I’ve vowed many times to learn Portuguese and to read its authors in the original. Luckily, for my sanity, there are splendid translators helping me to enjoy Brazilian literature, although very little contemporary literature gets translated. Is there a fear that it will not appeal? Certainly, the recent crime novel by Raphael Montes was strange and unsettling, but a refreshingly different read in a landscape that has often become rather uniform.

The same can be said for Tatiana Salem Levy’s exploration of cultural and personal identity The House in Smyrna. Apparently, this book was initially intended to be a dissertation on literature and family history, but Levy’s Ph. D. supervisor suggested that she write it as a novel instead.  The novel was entitled ‘The Keys to the House’ in the original Portuguese. Since its publication in 2007 (year in which it won a prestigious Brazilian prize for best debut), it has been revised and edited by the author prior to its translation into English. The author speaks English very well, as I found out when I saw her a couple of years ago at Lavigny, and she works as a translator, so she may have streamlined the text to make it more palatable to English readers.

Palatable, perhaps, but not easy. The narrative is fragmented, very much like Brazilian sensibility itself, which, the author says ‘if there is such a thing, it’s all about mixed identities’. The author is reluctant to close any doors, she doesn’t answer questions, merely asks more. It feels like she wants to allow the readers to find their own path through the novel and formulate their own interpretation of the story. So below is my personal interpretation of it.

A young woman lies helpless on her bed in Rio de Janeiro, filled with self-hatred and self-pity, victim to some kind of wasting disease. She has inherited a key to the house in Smyrna which her Jewish grandfather had left decades before as a young man. Her mission is to find the house and try the key. At first, she has no intention of doing that, but after her mother’s death, she somehow hauls herself off her sickbed and flies off to Istanbul. We then trace her route through Turkey, all her travel experiences, then her return via Lisbon, where she was born (her parents having lived there in exile during the dictatorship in Brazil). At the same time, we have flashbacks to her loving yet complicated relationship with her mother, and also a passionate but increasingly violent relationship with a lover.

By this point, it was getting very confusing: was the protagonist severely disabled or was she able to travel? What happened first, what next, all those switches between time frames made me nervous? And then I came across the following quote and the mystery deepened but also resolved itself:

This journey is a lie: I’ve never left this musty bed. My body rots a little more each day, I’m riddled with pustules, and soon I’ll be nothing but bones… How could I undertake such a journey? I have no joints; my bones are fused to one another. The only way I could leave this bed is if someone were to carry, but who would pick up such a repugnant body? What for? I have the silence and solitude of an entire family in me, of generations and generations.

This immediately gave an added poignancy to the story. We don’t know if the travel is real. It could be a pilgrimage in her mind, wishful thinking, an attempt to understand herself and the people around her while powerless to make the actual journey. Perhaps we are doomed to never quite understand our full heritage. Perhaps the paralysis is metaphorical: the equivalent of ‘writer’s block’, the need to find out more about the past in order to start building the future. The key is of course a metaphor, perhaps a very obvious one: the key to the narrator’s life, her sense of purpose.

tatiana-salem-levy-a-chave-de-casa-en-portugues-807711-MLA20602118566_022016-FThere is a throbbing, raw, emotional style to this kind of writing, which reminds me of Clarice Lispector and of Elena Ferrante. Unashamedly candid about sex, lyrical in the description of places the author visits, musical in its repetitions and waterfalls of sentences. Yet the pathos is gently tempered with down-to-earth humour. When the narrator proclaims that sense of loss of identity in exile:

I was born in exile, and that’s why I am the way I am, without a homeland, without a name. That is why I am solid, unpolished, still rough. I was born away from myself, away from my land — but, when it comes down to it, who am I? What land is mine?

we have the voice of the mother cutting down her fanciful pronouncements to size:

There you go again, narrating through a prism of pain. That isn’t what I told you. Exile isn’t necessarily full of suffering. In our case it wasn’t… We were in Portugal, eating well, speaking our own language, meeting people, working, having fun…

You can listen to an interview with the author in English on Australian radio, which I think helps greatly to unravel the mystery of this novel.

ravenscragCoincidentally, I was reading another novel of fragments and wildly different time frames just a few days later, Québécois author Alain Farah’s novel Ravenscrag. Initially exhilarating and intriguing, hinting at some mysterious disappearances and indoctrination, it ultimately disappointed me. By not exploring some of its most promising possibilities, it did not quite fulfill its promise and left me unsatisfied.