Marcus Malte: music, recent history and dark humour #EU27Project

It was Catherine from the wonderful Blog du Polar de Velda (if you read French and like crime fiction, this site comes highly recommended) who introduced me to author Marcus Malte in Lyon four years ago. I read two or three of his books (none of which have been translated into English yet) and found them all very different from each other, quite dark, highly imaginative and experimental.

In the meantime, he has won the prestigious Prix Femina with his novel Le garçon (which I haven’t read yet, but you can read Emma’s review), so here’s hoping at least that will get translated. However, in Lyon this year, I picked up one of his earlier books, Les harmoniques, which makes full use of his love of music, especially jazz. Malte is frequently described as a ‘noir’ author, but this book had moments of hilarious fun, almost farce-like, which surprised and enchanted me. Moreover, it did nothing to detract from the rather serious subject matter, proving that it’s not always grim and tortuous which is memorable or worthy. (Oscar selection committee, take note! How could you ignore ‘Hidden Figures’ so badly?)

The subtitle of the book is Beau Danube Blues (Beautiful Danube Blues) and this is a hint of the European tragedy that lies at its heart. It starts off with a chapter that resembles jazz improvisation, with two people talking (we have no idea who they are at first), and musical interludes between their words.

Som7   Sibm6

‘Believe it or not, there was a time when I thought I was immortal. But I fear that has gone. For good.’

‘That’s called wisdom.’

‘I’d rather call that giving up.

Fa   Fa7

‘Wisdom includes giving up.’

This might seem like a pretentious and unnecessarily difficult way to hook a reader into a novel, but if you move on to the next chapters, you realise it gives you a good insight into the two main characters: Mister and Bob.

Mister is a jazz pianist and one of his favourite fans, beautiful young Vera, has just been murdered and burnt alive. The police has arrested two suspects, who have confessed to the crime, but Mister is convinced there is more to it than meets the eye.

Bob is his friend and favourite taxi driver, a mighty unusual one, former philosophy professor, prone to enigmatic quotations and only occasionally charging his clients. Together, they set out to discover the truth about Vera’s death. In due course, they discover more about her life: she came to France to study theatre, but she was originally from the Balkans, from the Croatian town of Vukovar, where in 1991 an 87 day siege was followed by a whole-scale destruction and ethnic cleansing of the town by the Serbian army. But what could this long-gone war have to do with her present-day murder?

We never get to see Vera herself, she is dead at the outset of the novel, but we do see her through other people’s eyes and through short, poetic chapters, very much like musical interludes, which seem to delve into her mind, although they are in the third person:

This war which she escaped but which she carried everywhere with her. In her head. Secretly. Even in the most tender moments.

They come across a series of paintings of Vera in an art gallery and decide to visit the artist Josef Kristi, a strange, reclusive character, to find out more about the relationship between Kristi and the model. Although the artist tells them a little about Vera’s past, they don’t quite believe he is not involved in her death, so they decide to do some very amateurish surveillance. What follows is a very funny scene, where they end up in the middle of a field of beetroots (or maybe turnips or potatoes or pumpkins, they are not quite sure), just opposite the Kristi house. Mister fears they are too conspicuous, but Bob says they can always claim that they are waiting for a pick-up truck. And then a farmer passes by and stops to see what these incompetent investigators are up to… I was giggling all the way through this scene.

There are serious and dangerous moments too: they get involved with nasty and brutal people, some of them in positions of power, and make some unlikely allies – a blind, elderly accordeon-player and a young, tone-deaf singer. While this is not a plot-driven book, the build-up of tension was working well until about the last 100 pages, when it all descends into a lengthy explanation and is wrapped up too quickly, as if the author had lost interest.

Scene from the literary concert, from Var Matin.

But the crime element is not the main reason to read this book: it is a wonderful piece of rhythmic and musical writing, with many passages designed to be read out loud (as the author did, with musical accompaniment, in Lyon. You can read Emma’s thoughts about the event here). It is a melancholy look at all the ‘forgotten’ towns and victims, and a reminder that the consequences of war rage on long after the conflict is officially over. It will not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I am always curious to see what Marcus Malte writes next: he is most certainly not an author to be pigeon-holed.

This fits in well with the #EU27Project, since it is written by a French writer, deals with a recent conflict in Croatia and reminds us of the purpose of the EU.

 

 

 

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!