Andrzej Stasiuk: On the Road to Babadag #EU27Project

This is in many ways the perfect #EU27Project read, although three of the countries it refers to are outside the EU.

Stasiuk is a Polish writer who is not smitten with the idea of the West or even Central Europe, as so many other writers and citizens from former Communist states are, in moth-like fascination. Instead he is looking at lesser-known and decaying pockets of Slovakia, Ukraine, Romania, Moldova, Albania and Hungary. He is therefore doing those neglected and forgotten places a favour. Yet, by deliberately staying away from the tourist route (there is no mention of Budapest or Bucharest or Brasov or any of the more popular sights), he is presenting perhaps an equally lop-sided view as the Tourist Offices of those countries.

Idyllic village image from Publikon.ro

If Britain or the US might be said to have a nostalgia for empire or world domination, Stasiuk here has a nostalgia for marginalisation and oppression, for what he calls the ‘Balkan shambles’. As if suffering confers authenticity and profundity. This is not so much a tribute to a vibrant and resilient community as a eulogy to a dying way of life.

I’m not sure I agree with this premise, which is why I read this book with a mix of feelings. On the one hand, I loved his atmospheric descriptions of everyday life in villages, which reminded me of summers spent at my grandmother’s house:

From occidentul-romanesc.com

Telkibanya, a village that hadn’t changed in a hundred years. Wide, scattered houses under fruit trees… From windows of homes, the smell of stewing onions. In market stalls, mounds of melons, paprikas. A woman emerged from a cellar with a glass jug filled with wine… Old women sitting in front of the houses on the main street. Like lizards in the sun. Their black clothes stored the afternoon heart, and their eyes gazed on the world without motion and without surprise, because they had seen everything.

The author also has a good grasp of the historical and political nuances of this troubled part of the world, and is adept at conveying all this complexity with a frankness which would be unwelcome from a writer who has not grown up there.

…everyone should come here. At least those who make use of the name Europe. It should be an initiation ceremony, because Albania is the unconscious of the continent. Yes, the European id, the fear that at night haunts slumbering Paris, London, and Frankfurt am Main. Albania is the dark well into which those who believe that everything has been settled once and for all should peer…. so I drank black Fernet and tried to imagine a country that one day everyone would leave. They would abandon their land to the mercy of time, which would break open the envelope the hours and months and in pure form enter what remained of cities, to dissolve them, turn them into primal air and minerals.

It soon becomes clear that this is not a typical travelogue. The author criss-crosses these countries, and there is little attempt at chronology or systematisation of his travels. Instead, one memory gives rise to another, themes flow easily from one to the next. Yet he has an uncanny ability to define a region’s main characteristic. Here he talks, for instance, about the fertile hills of Moldova, conveying something of the gentle nature of the Moldavians.

Continual green, continual fecundity, the land undulating, the horizon rising and falling, showing us only what we expect, as if not wishing to cause us the least unpleasantness. Grapes, sunflowers, corn, a few animals, grapes, sunflowers, corn, cows and sheep, on occasion a a garden, and rows of nut trees always on either side of the road. No free space in this scenery, no sudden disjunction, and the imagination, encountering no ambush, soon dozes. Most likely events took place here a hundred, two hundred, three hundred years ago, but they left no trace. Life seeps into the soil, disperses into the air, burns calmly and evenly, as if confident that it will never burn out.

So what did I dislike about it? I am conflicted regarding his romanticism about the messiness, untidiness, lack of discipline, the sheer ‘Orientalism’ of this part of the world.  He claims to genuinely love the shambles

…the amazing weight of things, the lovely slumber, the facts that make no difference, the calm and methodical drunkenness in the middle of the day, and those misty eyes that with no effort pierce reality and with no fear open to the void. I can help it. The heart of my Europe beats in Sokolow Podlaski and in Husi. It does not beat in Vienna. Or in Budapest. And most definitely not in Krakow. Those places are all aborted transplants.

Yet this to me smacks of traveller’s voyeurism, like the British love for India at arm’s length. ‘Everything half-assed and fucked up’ is a wonderful place to visit for the authentic experience, but it is not necessarily a desirable place to live. I’ve never understood the appeal of disaster movies either, other than a triumphalist affirmation of our own superiority in the face of catastrophe (meanwhile, great swathes of the world are still trying to recover from the previous disaster).

And yet, and yet… expecting all parts of our naughty, moody, spotty continent to behave in consistent and elegant fashion is neither realistic nor desirable. Much of this messiness is not just historically inflicted, but also self-inflicted. So what should those unruly teens aspire to? Especially when some of the older democracies and hitherto solid ‘grown-up’ civilisations seem to be losing their elegance (ahem! naming no names!).

Ultimately, Stasiuk sees himself as a chronicler of the period of transition from East Bloc to post-Communism. Many of the scenes he describes have perhaps already disappeared. So yes, it is a valuable document, rooted in its time and place. Just forgive this reader for not being able to read it entirely objectively.

The depressing and still unrecognised republic of Transnistria, from The Calvert Journal.

Quais du Polar Lyon 2017: Politics and People

Two of the panels I attended at the Quais du Polar were more overtly political (although I avoided the ones on French or American politics – no need to depress myself still farther).

Back to the East

Jelena Volić (Serbia), Bogdan Teodorescu (Romania), Eugen Chirovici (Romania), Indrek Hargla (Estonia).

A bit of a clanger at the start of the session! Although the moderator said it was an attempt to escape the dominance of Anglo-Saxon and Western crime fiction, he then proceeded by saying that Volić had been born in Budapest, at which she retorted: ‘No, another capital city starting with B – Belgrade.’ I suppose that just goes to show the ignorance about ‘Eastern Europe’ which is still quite common in the West – but then again, the room was packed, standing room only at the back while I sprawled out on the floor, so perhaps there was genuine curiosity and willingness to find out more.

The reason I put ‘Eastern Europe’ in quotation marks is because all of the authors remarked that this is very much a malleable concept rather than a geographical reality. Nowadays it has become more popular to say Central Europe, but without necessarily meaning it. Meanwhile, it could be argued that Estonia is more Nordic in feel and has very little to do with the Balkanic fellow panellists. So you couldn’t help feeling that the panel had been cobbled together purely because ‘well, you are all from that part of the world somehow’, without much thought or care going into the process or any attempt to find common themes.

The books themselves didn’t necessarily have anything to do with the East, either. Chirovici said his book takes place in the US and is all about the power of memory to falsify our recollections, nothing to do with the history or politics of Romania, past or present. Meanwhile, Hargla said his whole intention was to offer escapism, which is why he had gone for mysteries set in medieval times (the 15th century being also one of the most protracted periods of peace in Estonia’s troubled history).

So it was down to just Volić and Teodorescu to state that their books are making a political statement. Volić has written a crime novel set around the time of Srebrenica, because she wanted to show how ordinary humans cope with individual tragedies at a time of mass tragedy. She co-writes with German author Christian Schünemann and her books are primarily intended for a Western audience, as she thinks the Serbs are all too aware of the subjects she is addressing. There are no easy answers in a book which unflinchingly examines a country’s guilt, and attempts to forget or deny the evil acts of the past.

From left: translator, Indrek Hargla, E.O. Chirovici, translator, Bogdan Teodorescu, Jelena Velic, moderator.

Teodorescu refers not to Romania’s past but its present-day issues in his novel Spada, which is the story of serial killer who targets criminal gypsies. Through the ambivalent public, political and media reactions to this killer, the author demonstrates just how easy it is to normalise the language of hatred, to raise the spectre of the ‘Demon Other’ and to lose any vestige of kindness and civilised behaviour in a democratic, open society in which 95% of people would describe themselves as ‘tolerant’. The book was published in Romanian a few years ago, but seems very timely with Trump’s America, Brexit Britain and now France and Germany possibly veering down the same path.

Exiled, Imprisoned, Tortured, But Alive

Victor Del Arbol (Spain), Marc Fernandez (France/Spain), Zygmunt Miłoszewski (Poland), Qiu Xiaolong (China).

From left: Miloszewski, translator, Qiu, Fernandez, Del Arbol.

The panellists started off by joking: ‘Welcome to the most depressing topic of the whole conference’, but in fact it was also one of the most fascinating topics, enabling us to see how totalitarian regimes have commonalities regardless of political leanings or culture. The moderator claimed that perhaps there was a Zorro instinct in each one of them, to uncover oppression and injustice through their fiction. While the authors themselves made no such pretentious statements, it was clear that giving voice to forgotten stories, to the vanquished, to truths which had been buried by the wayside was important to them.

Del Arbol said that espousing or allowing just one single truth is dangerous, that is what kills. He also considers himself Catalan, Spanish and European all at once and does not see why this should be a contradiction. Miłoszewski said that all countries have something in their past that they are less proud of, and that they want to remember only the glory days, but the role of the artist is to offer an alternative to the ‘official’ interpretation of the past, to remember the shameful incidents as well. That’s what true patriotism means. Otherwise, nostalgia for the golden past without any shades is merely nationalism. Fernandez also pointed out the conundrum of the perpetual outsider: in France is considered the Spaniard, in Spain he is considered too French. Qiu described his father’s humiliation as a member of the bourgeoise for daring to own a small perfume factory during the Cultural Revolution – and openly admitted he resented his father at the time for blocking any future career he might have had. He also told us how he was forced into exile in the US and had to start writing in English. This is the sad truth of all-pervasive state interference: ‘People don’t make the choices themselves – they have them made for them.’ He brought all this reluctant collaboration and ambiguity into Inspector Chen’s character.

Books and People

And here is my book haul – reasonably modest this year, as I was travelling with hand luggage only. One in German: the Thomas Willmann I mentioned in the previous post, two French authors (Marcus Malte and the only one I was missing by Jean-Claude Izzo, Chourmo, which also happens to be my favourite), three translations into French (Victor Del Arbol, Bogdan Teodorescu and an absurdist Russian novel by Olga Slavnikova), Ron Rash and David Vann in English (although they are much more expensive in France, of course, but I was keen to have them signed) and finally another Romanian author, Bogdan Hrib, with his first book translated into English (he is also Teodorescu’s Romanian publisher and there may be some exciting collaborations forthcoming, fingers crossed).

I got to meet many delightful authors, but got a little bit starstruck and forgot to take pictures. Apologies to the charming Ragnar Jonasson and Lilja Sigurdardottir for not pestering them for pictures. I was more than a little awestruck by Victor Del Arbol and David Vann, and I never got to speak to Cay Rademacher and David Young, but I did manage to take some pictures of the truly international Johana Gustawsson, the always bright and funny Dominique Sylvain (I believe it’s the 4th time I see here either in Lyon or Geneva) and newcomer – all the way from Australia – Jane Harper.

Johana Gustawsson holding up her second book published in France.
Dominique Sylvain rocking the Chrissie Hynde look.
Jane Harper with French translation of her debut ‘The Dry’.

 

Spiral (Engrenages)

I was also lucky enough to receive an invitation to the preview of the first episode of the new (6th) series of Engrenages (better known as Spiral in the UK). I had already heard the main writer Anne Landois discuss her work in Lyon a couple of years ago, but this time she was joined by the producer at Canal+ and the actors playing the police officers Tintin and Gilou, as well as Judge Roban (the two women actors had other commitments). The series has been going strong for 12 years now, and the actors (plus or minus a few high-profile losses) have been together for pretty much the whole time and have become a tight-knit family. Anne said that she was constantly inspired by the actors to develop characters even farther, while the actors said they really felt they were part of something special, an emphasis on the personal lives of their characters as well as the investigation which is quite new to French TV.

Of course I cannot give anything away about the new series, otherwise they would have to kill me. Suffice it to say that the investigation will extend to the troubled Department 93 on the outskirts of Paris. Sadly, it is also Anne’s last season on the show, as it’s been a pretty full-time job for the past 10 years and she understandably wants to try something else. However, a new team of writers are already working on Season 7. Meanwhile, Season 6 will be out in September on French TV and hopefully soon afterwards on BBC4.

Too far away and too badly lit to do them justice – but they look far cooler in real life than on screen.

 

Quais du Polar Lyon 2017: Part 1

Back from Quais du Polar crime festival in Lyon and it was once again a wonderful experience, one that I would encourage all my crime fiction friends in the UK to consider. The total cost can work out cheaper than attending British crime festivals, even with a weaker pound: flights to Lyon are often cheaper than train tickets, hotels can be cheaper too, all the events are free, and you need to eat and drink in both places (plus the food in Lyon is usually of excellent quality).

So that’s my contribution to the Lyon Tourist Board. I was very lucky to attend the festival with a book-blogging friend in Lyon, Emma from Book Around the Corner, and her far more timely and excellent descriptions of each day at the Quais du Polar are here, here and here, so I am not sure I can add much more to that. But I did attend some different panels than Emma. Incidentally all the conferences available for replay on live.quaisdupolar.com (mostly in French, but also in English and Spanish, depending on what language the authors were using). I will try to include a link to each specific conference I am discussing.

The Tricolore flying from the Town Hall tower.

Women as victims, women as executioners

Clare Mackintosh (UK) and Jenny Rogneby (Sweden) both worked with the police before turning their hand to crime fiction, so they had interesting things to say about the capacity of women to be perpetrators of crime. The other writers on the panel (Andrée Michaud from Canada, Dominique Sylvain and Harold Cobert from France) agreed that they were all tired of seeing women in fiction exclusively as disempowered victims, being raped or murdered or tortured for entertainment purposes. Andrée said that kind of writing smacked of voyeurism and she isn’t sure it serves the purpose of the story. Clare wants to give a voice to the victims, and what happens off the page, what is implied, what we all fear is often scarier than a very graphic scene of actual violence. Jenny pointed out that there is still very often a double standard: that when women commit a crime, they are judged far more harshly, as if it’s more understandable or forgivable or to be expected when men commit a crime. Harold thought (based on the example of his own young son) that all of us are born with a capacity for violence – we all feel like killing certain annoying people, for instance – but we don’t act on it because we learn to put on a thin veneer of civilisation as we grow up. Dominique didn’t quite agree with that; she argued that it’s the survival instinct, when we feel attacked or cornered, which can make even the most placid of us react violently at times. She was fascinated with Clare’s account of drunken Friday nights in city centres in the UK, when women are often more aggressive and resort to physical violence even more readily than the men, and commented: ‘It’s interesting that you don’t see that kind of female behaviour in fiction: you see the manipulative/psychological type of feminine violence.’ Indeed!

Detail of the Town Hall Grande Salle where this conference was held.

 

TransEurope Express

A journey from East to West and North to South of Europe: Arnaldur Indriđason (Iceland), Victor del Arbol (Spain), Andriy Kokotukha (Ukraine), Zygmunt Miłoszewski (Poland), Olivier Truc (France, but writing about the Reindeer Police in the Arctic Circle).

This was one of those panels where it was very difficult to find a common subject, other than stating that crime fiction is a wonderful way to discover new countries and cultures and that we should enjoy our European diversity without ever taking it for granted. Each author shared a little bit about their specific countries and their experience of ‘occupation’ or ‘oppression’. The most poignant account was of course from the Ukraine, where the ‘Maidan’ (street) movement was not just revolutionary but also a cultural initiative, and the protesters found refuge (and spiritual nourishment) in the Cultural Centre and Library. Yes, even Iceland has known occupation: it only became independent in 1944 and until 2006 had a US military base which practically doubled the population of Reykjavik overnight. They also expressed concern about the recent resurgence of nationalist rhetoric. As Del Arbol said: ‘I thought I was writing about the past – dictatorship, not being able to listen to other points of view, the blaming of others, hatred – but I can see we are in danger of it happening all over again.’

Full audience for this panel, as in fact for all panels.

Madame Bovary, c’est moi

Three male writers – David Young (UK), Ron Rash (US), Caryl Ferey (France) – who have powerful female protagonists in many of their books. Why do they choose to write about women – in either first or third person (and they all agreed that it was much more intimate and difficult to do the first person)? What was fascinating here was the difference in approach: Rash and Ferey talked very much about inspiration, almost divine dictation straight from the source of the story. David Young had a much more down-to-earth, craftsman-like approach.

RR: It’s not that I choose to write women: the story and the characters choose me. When I tried to write one particular story from a man’s perspective, it was as if I was switched onto the wrong frequency, so I had to switch to a woman’s voice and then it all became clear. Besides, women in American fiction often only have power within the family, so I wanted to go beyond the stereotypical. Plus I am such a boring person, I want to write about much more interesting people than myself. Perhaps some other writers – naming no names – should consider doing that too. And I love the challenge of writing about something or someone that I know less – we are all essentially trying to describe what it means to be alive in the world, to be human. After a while, you start to hear the voice so clearly, it’s like being possessed in some ways.

CF: Two women together in a scene are always far more interesting than two men: with two men in a scene in a crime novel, they usually end up fighting or shooting each other, with women it’s a lot more complex. I do admit falling in love with my female character, pathetic though it may sound. And my ideal of manhood is David Bowie, who is that perfect combination of male and female characteristics.

DY: I had a much more cynical reason for using a female heroine: I wanted to write a thriller set in GDR in the 1970s, but that kind of thing usually only appeals to male readers, so I wanted to draw in female readers by creating Karen Müller as the recurring main detective in the series. Plus, it is reflective of East German society at the time: over 90% of women were working, in all sorts of jobs, it was a far more egalitarian society in that respect. I was also lucky that my tutors at City University were women and gave me good feedback if they felt that I was straying too far from a woman’s perspective on things.

 

Die Mannschaft: German Crime Fiction

This was the first of two panels on Germany: viewed from the inside, by German authors Thomas Willmann, Sebastian Fitzek and Oliver Bottini. Unfortunately, I couldn’t attend the second session on Germany and Berlin seen from the outside by Maxime Gillio and Romain Slocombe (France), Philip Kerr and David Young (UK), but I will be listening to that recording.

Aside from the huge pleasure of hearing German once more, I also appreciated the opportunity to discover some new authors. I had only read Fitzek before, and his fast-paced psycho-thrillers are not necessarily my cup of tea, but I discovered that Bottini has a series featuring an alcoholic woman detective Louise Boni (makes a change from male alcoholics, I suppose). However, the one that captured my imagination was Willmann’s combination of Heimatroman (translated as: sentimental novel set in a traditional regional background) and Western, with a stranger coming to a snowbound village in the Alps, sounded very much like Dürrenmatt’s play about revenge ‘The Visit’ liberally sprinkled with Scandinoir moodiness. It has been filmed in Austria, directed by Andreas Prochaska. The German language trailer is at the end of this blog post.

From left: Willmann, Fitzek, moderator Joachim Umlauf, Bottini.

What all three writers complained about was that German literature tends to be very earnest, full of educational zeal and purpose, so genre literature, whose sole purpose is entertainment, is regarded with suspicion and quite a bit of derision. Fitzek claimed that he doesn’t care what the critics say about him, or what drawer he gets stuck in, as long as he can tell the kind of story he enjoys reading himself. Bottini, however, was more enraged by the lack of consideration given to crime fiction, and said there are no big crime festivals in Germany which could compare to Quais du Polar or English festivals. In spite of all that, German ‘Krimi’ is remarkably healthy and diverse, and it engages with current affairs, examines social problems, provides a kind of X-ray of society.

Although I want to avoid this becoming a roman fleuve, I also want to avoid a massively long post, so I will write separately about the two political panels which I attended, plus the advance screening of the first episode of the new series of Spiral (Engrenages), as well as my book haul and personal encounters.

 

 

 

 

Where Are We Now?

This song by David Bowie from his latest album ‘The Next Day’ always has me in tears.  Not because it is a love song, but because it talks about Berlin past and present.  Berlin has always exerted a powerful fascination over me, because it is a symbol of more than one dictatorship.  I visited it back in the days when it was a very sad, divided town. [Incidentally, a journalist friend of mine at the time said that nearly all major cities starting with a B are heading towards destruction and unhappiness: Beirut, Belfast, Belgrade, Bucharest…]

Berlin, Germany
Berlin, Germany (Photo credit: OSU Special Collections & Archives : Commons)

Of course, Berlin is no longer gloomy and schizophrenic. It has become the trendy place to be for creatives and young families. Yet this song reminds me that the revolution we hoped to achieve in Eastern Europe – and which entailed quite a bit of human sacrifice  ‘walking the dead’, as Bowie puts it –  was supposed to be about more than having more consumer choice or becoming trendy.  It was about starting over, about being brave and honest, about establishing new ways of thinking and listening to each other,  a new kind of culture.  Where are we now?  Very far from all that.

So this is a very long-winded introduction to this draft of a poem that I wrote – am still writing –  for dVerse Poets Pub Open Link Night, based on this idea of a failed revolution. But then, perhaps all revolutions are doomed to fail.

That night we bade farewell to fear.

Tanks and bullets became real.

No game.

No bystanders.

Fences fell.

A few days later when we buried

the old regime,

we thought we’d given birth

to hope.

flagWe drove down roads in whooping glee

waving cut-out flags.

Fists pumping in air so cold

we knew we could cut it

into purest blocks

to conserve that moment and our courage

forever.

Then start afresh.

Breathless with hope,

giddy with joy,

there was no wall we could not climb,

no paths we could not forge.

How we dared dream.

Till undergrowth smothered us.