#EU27Project: Estonia’s Rein Raud

Rein Raud: The Death of the Perfect Sentence, transl. Matthew Hyde

With such an attractive author name and an intriguing title, I just couldn’t resist getting this book for my #EU27Project. Admittedly, there aren’t many Estonian books in translation to choose from. Given the age of the author (born in 1961), I suspect quite a bit of the ‘before and after’ narrative of Estonia’s recent history are things he has personally experienced.

The story follows a group of young dissidents during the dying days of the Soviet rule over Estonia. Through rapid shifts of viewpoints, we get to know each of them and their reasons for getting involved in clandestine activity and trying to smuggle secret Soviet files out of the country. There is idealistic, artistic Raim with his pragmatic parents who value comfort over nationalist ideals; Ervin, who has been offered a lighter sentence in exchange for denouncing his friends; immaculately turned out Karl, who is older than the others; Indrek, who is rebelling both against his family and the social order; and the youngest of them all, Anton, whose mother is Russian and whose father is a notoriously tough investigator and interrogator known only by his surname, Särg (which means ‘roach’ in Estonian, as in the fish rather than a cockroach). We follow their actions, their fears, their friendships and love stories, and their disappointments.

The author is also a cultural philosopher, literary theorist and translator from Japanese.

That is not the only plot line, however. We get to hear about the rather romantic love story between an Estonian girl and a Russian man, as full of misunderstandings as Romeo and Juliet, although slightly less tragic. We get to to know Anton’s father far better as he interrogates various members of the group, little knowing that his own son is part of it. And, interspersed through all these third person narratives, we have the first person account (I assume this could be the author himself, although it is never quite explicit), with wry asides and anecdotes that are tangential to the main story, remembering what life was like in Estonia and trying to understand the motivation behind all of the actions of both dissidents and collaborators.

Perhaps they were proud of their own professionalism and thought that even if the system which they were helping to keep afloat was not ideal, it was at least preferable to the chaos which would inevitably ensue if it were not for them? Or maybe it was all a kind of rought sport for them, a chess game against invisible opponents, with human fates at stake instead of chess pieces. Or were they really of the view that the rulers of this world were incorrigible brutes and pigs, much the same wherever you went, and that it was a mistake to believe that some leaders could be better than others… Or maybe they didn’t give it much throught so long as they could keep their cosy jobs and put bread on the table. I don’t know.

The issue of guilt, both individual and collective, has been insufficiently addressed in the former Soviet Republics (and in much of Eastern Europe). Perhaps that was necessary to move these societies forward, to focus on reconciliation and progress rather than punishment. However, this does mean that many things have been swept under the carpet, and you bump into people in surprising places, like the KGB operative who after independence ends up working as a doorman at one of the embassies in Tallinn.

In some ways, this description of a divided society (the ‘normal people’ and the ‘informers’ reminded me of Anna Burns’ Northern Ireland). And of course, it reminded me of my childhood, when my parents warned me to be very careful whom I talked to about the things we discussed at home.

There was however another important currency in circulation – trust. Some may use simpler terms such as acquaintances, contacts, but nothing would have counted without trust. Because in the end it was impossible to trust anyone if you hadn’t gone to school together, shared the same sauna, gone scrumping with them, studied together, worked in the same office, done military service together, stolen something, eaten and drunk with them, slept with them… You didn’t use a dentist whom you didn’t trust, you didn’t ask someone to pass a letter to your Swedish relatives if you didn’t trust them. If you could help it you had nothing to do with people you did not trust – they might every well be working for the other side.

Trust was the only valid currency.

It was just so exhausting.

Gratuitous image of Tallinn, because it is so pretty. From Lonely Planet.

Above all, this book is an examination of how individuals get caught up in major historical changes, some of them for misguided reasons, some of them expecting quite different outcomes, and many of them not even aware what they are letting themselves in for. Has independence lived up to its promise? Was the new Estonia worth all the sacrifices, the older and more cynical author appears to ask. And the answer is:

Only a fool would throw away a beautiful apple from his own garden just because it has a few maggot holes in it. Only a fool prefers things which are shiny and never rot. After all, it’s always the tastiest of apples that the maggots go for. And you can bet your life on it, the maggots’ll know these things.

You can read a review of this book and other books by Rein Raud on Melissa Beck’s blog. She was the one who drew my attention to this book, and even has an interview with the author. From his Wikipedia entry, I also discovered that he was President of the European Association of Japanese Studies from 2011 to 2014, so unfortunately well after my time in that organisation.

#EU27Project: The Transylvanian Trilogy

It’s taaken years of mental preparation and gradual acquisition of books, and about a year in the reading (the first volume followed by a gap and then a rather breathless devouring of the two remaining volumes). But I’ve finally done it: finished the entry for Hungary in my #EU27Project. And what a magnificent entry it is: Miklós Bánffy’s trilogy The Writing on the Wall, a.k.a. The Transylvanian Trilogy.

I have to admit to a stuttering start with it. I picked it up at least three times to read the first 10-20 pages and got lost in the profusion of unfamiliar names and events. But once I found the key that opened the door, I was rewarded with an entire (vanished) world that I had difficulties letting go of…

The 2nd book in the trilogy.

It’s a monumental work, running to 1392 pages, yet my feeling by the end was that it finished too soon, because it barely addressed the war and its aftermath. So, for people comparing it to War and Peace, I would say it’s more peace overshadowed by the gathering clouds of war. It is far more similar to Joseph Roth’s Radetzky March, mourning the loss of the same empire from the point of view of minority ethnic groups who have benefitted from the Empire, but have an ambiguous relationship to it.

Bánffy himself was an incredibly interesting man, a politician as well as a writer, mature and liberal, suspicious of both Hungarian and Romanian nationalism, trying a conciliatory middle ground after the Versailles Treaty, a rapprochement to the Allies during the Second World War (during the period when both Hungary and Romania were in the German camp) and somehow forever caught in the middle as a proud Transylvanian. He lived long enough to see his beautiful home,
Bonțida, the inspiration for Denestornya in his book, destroyed by the retreating, resentful Germans, and his ‘homeland’ or ‘heartland’ occupied by the Soviets.

Banffy Castle, Bonțida. Renovations have started on it in the past couple of years.

It must have been even more heartbreaking ultimately than described the final chapter of his trilogy, where he allows himself to utter a cry of despair:

Now this beloved country would perish, and with it most of his generation… that deluded generation that had given importance only to theories, phrases and formaleu, that had ingored all reality, that had chased like children after the fata morgana of mirage and illusion, that had turned away from everything on which their stregnth was based, that denied the vital importance of power and self-criticism and national unity.

This is a family saga as well as a description of Hungarian society in the ten years preceding World War One. All of life seems to be present in its pages: we have a love story (several, in fact), affairs, friendships, betrayals, disappointments and heartbreaks, political intrigue, fraud and loving descriptions of a landscape (and its people) that clearly meant a lot to the author.

Bonțida Castle in 1890, from Wikipedia.

I certainly enjoyed reading about the fancy dress balls in Budapest, charity bazaars in Koloszvar (Cluj), carriage processions drawn by Lippizzaner horses bringing guests to a hunting party in Slovakia, weddings and parties, duels and conmen, romantic moonlit serenades, jinks and high spirits like stealing cows by youthful members of the privileged elite to prove the laziness of the nightwatchman… and yet… I felt uncomfortable with the excessive wealth and pomp, the hedonistic lifestyle of many of the characters in the book in their huge manor houses and lands bequeathed to them by the Emperor, and their casual cruel references to the ‘local’ populations who were their servants. I am sure that is precisely what the author intends: there is much affection in describing that lost world, but also a chilling indictment of his fellow aristocrats’ self-indulgence and indifference to the plight of others.

Miklos Banffy and his family in front of Bontida, including his daughter Katalin, who was involved in the translation of his masterpiece.

The main protagonist, Balint Abady, tries to be fair and organise cooperatives on his land (reflecting, I am sure, Banffy’s own liberal beliefs), but the truth is many of the Magyar landlords and artistocracy were unbelievably cruel to the majority Romanian population,
who were essentially their property, i.e. serfs (and not that friendly to the ethnic Germans either, who were however largely merchants and craftsmen, therefore more independent – as for the gypsies and Jews, well…). Balint’s mother has a generous yet very patronising way of distributing Christmas presents, and owns such vast swathes of land that she loses sight of it and falls easy prey to those who trick her and mistreat the people living there.

Still, I can’t help melting when Banffy describes the mountains so lovingly, the same mountains that I grew up with and adore. For him, they clearly represent the Garden of Eden. There are so many moments which impregnate themselves on your retina, like Balint and the love of his life Adrienne bathing naked in an ice cold stream high up in the forest:

They emerged from out of the thick trees onto the bank of a sizeable basin of water, almost circular, with steep banks dipping down to it that were so regular they might have been carved by the hand of man himself. Here the cranberries tumbled in tropical profusion; and here and there could be glimpsed bluebells, buttercups and pale green ethereal ferns. In the middle of the basin, some rocks rose above the surface of the water… glistening with the water that flowed around and over their smooth, polished surface.

Apuseni National Park, photo credit: Gabor Varga, Romaniatourism.com

I have a vested historical interest in Transylvania, of course, as some of my family originated there (then escaped across the mountains into Wallachia when things got too bad), so I found the political elements of the story fascinating. I hadn’t realised before quite how much tension there was between Hungary and the Austrians, despite the ‘K. und K.’ agreement (Emperor – Kaiser – of Austria, King of Hungary, so a dual monarchy and devolved parliament). Some of the speeches in the Budapest Parliament are probably taken word for word from the author’s own speeches and experiences of politics. Banffy (via Balint) is clearly highly critical of the infighting amongst Hungarian politicians, their focus on petty parochial issues instead of the major international threats heading their way.

It is, after all, a generally accepted rule that only some cataclysmic event or terrible danger can wipe away the preoccupations with the joys, sorrows and troubles of everyday life. The news was mulled over when they read the morning newspapers, argued and discussed in the clubs and coffee-houses and possibly even discussed at the family meals, but, while it was, everyday life went on as usual and most people only thought seriously about their work, their business interests, property, family and friends, their social activities, about love and sport and maybe a little about local politics and the myriad trifles that are and always have been everyone’s daily preoccupations. And how could it have been otherwise?

Most readers will skip the politics and be attracted to the diverse characters and family histories (be warned: there are lots of names and complex family alliances through marriage, it’s quite a challenge to keep track of them all). It is an immersive experience, you become so engrossed in the minutiae of their daily lives, anxieties and sorrows, that you are very reluctant to leave that world.

Above all, there are some real set-piece scenes that will linger in your mind long after finishing the books. Balint’s cousin Laszlo Gyeroffy starts out with such high hopes, optimism and talent and becomes a tragic figure, a victim of his own foolhardiness at the gambling tables; his death is ignoble and lonely. The scene of the death of Balint’s mother, by way of contrast, is beautiful, peaceful, as she slips away, surrounded by all she loved. Balint’s lover Adrienne is quite frankly annoying at times, with her dithering between passion and keeping up appearances, although of course we have to understand that she was living in different times and there are examples in the book of what happened to women who defied social expectations.

A captivating and unforgettable reading experience, and if it makes you want to visit Cluj, Bonțida and the Apuseni mountains, then all the better. I’m planning to go there next time I’m in Romania!

Apuseni Mountains, from Senior Voyage website.

#EU27Project: Slovakia’s Jana Benova

It has been difficult to find any Slovak authors in translation; by contrast, there is an abundance of Czech literature for the English-speaking reader to choose from. So I was happy to see that the small family-run indie publisher Two Dollar Radio from Columbus, Ohio, has published Jana Benova’s Seeing People Off, translated by Janet Livingstone.

Jana Benova is well-known not just in her home country, but also a winner of the European Union Prize for Literature, widely translated into other European languages other than English. She is a playful, experimental writer, with a fizzy, poppy style that one might expect from a younger writer (she is of my generation rather than a pure-bred millenial, by which I mean somebody born in the 1990s).

The original title of this novel is Café Hyena, and that is the meeting place for a group of artistic friends in Bratislava, in particular two couples who share an income which allows them to pursue their literary endeavours.

They had a system where one of them would always work and earn money while the others created. They sat around in the café, strolled around the city, studied, observed, fought for their lives. The fourth, meanwhile, provided the stipend. Just as other artists get them from ; the Santa Maddalena Foundation in Tuscany, the Instituto Calouste Gulbenkian in Lisbon, the Fulbright Foundation in the USA, or the Countess Thurn-Taxis in Duino.

The Quartet are formed of Elza and Ian, who live in the much maligned district of Petržalka on the ‘wrong’ side of the river, and Rebeka (Elza’s childhood friend) with her husband Lukas Elfman. They are the post-Communist generation, but refuse to subscribe to the desperate capitalist hustle that seems to have engulfed everyone else. They feel they are not selling out on their artistic ambitions.

Elza and Ian were Bratislava desperadoes. They didn’t work for an advertising agency and weren’t trying to save up for a better apartment or car. They sat around in posh cafés. They ate, drank, and smoked away all the money they earned. Like students. (Slogan: Only genuinely wasted money is money truly saved.) They joined that carefree class of people who buy only what they can pee, poop, and blow out – recycle in 24 hours. It was because of those desperate people that the cafés and restaurants in the city, where everything costs a hundred times more than it should, could stay open.


Petržalka is a real neighbourhood of Bratislava, a sea of concrete tower blocks, home to 100,000 inhabitants. Somewhat ironically, it borders Austria, and in recent years has been repainted in an effort to shake its grey image. It is probably no better and no worse than hundreds of other Communist developments across the Eastern bloc, which cannot be torn down because it would leave so many homeless. Yet the author describes it like a circle of hell and makes fun of it relentlessly – the thin walls, eccentric neighbours who try to know everything about you, how easy it is to get lost in its identical alleys. To Elza, it feels like banishment from the ‘real city’ and the bridge connecting Petržalka to the Old Town is full of dangerous temptation to jump in. The river is ‘too close’ and ‘calls you’. Could that be because Petržalka is the place where losers go?

Elfman claims that the genius loci of Petržalka is the fact that, in time, everyone here starts to feel like an asshole who never amounted to anything in life. A guy who couldn’t take care of himself or his family.

So the Quartet takes refuge in their (often aimless) discussions and in their imaginings. Elza is obsessed with Kalisto Tanzi, a charismatic actor who might be her lover or perhaps a figment of her imagination. Elfman drinks excessively even by the group’s standards, while Rebeka ends up in a psychiatric ward. Very small and fast dogs seem to pop up in this strange mosaic-like collection of memories, insights, observations and anecdotes. We also catch glimpses of Elza and Ian’s childhood and youth. Just to confuse matters even more, Elza is in the process of writing a book called Seeing People Off, and the narration switches at some point from third to first person.

Confused? So you should be! This is certainly not conventional storytelling, but it is quite successful in capturing a certain type of person, place and time. Something that is difficult to articulate but that you recognise as vignette succeeds vignette. I might prefer a novel with a clearer story arc, but I was caught up in its verve and (sometimes black) humour. It certainly catches the mood of much of contemporary literature (see for example Attrib and Other Stories by Eley Williams, or Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation).

#EU27Project: Croatia – The Hotel Tito

‘Art allows more room for the truth, especially if your goal is not merely to tell your own story…’ says the author of The Hotel Tito Ivana Bodrožić. So this is most decidedly not a memoir, but a novel, the story of an entire generation of people who grew up in a country that suddenly disintegrated, children who had to leave their homes and grow up in displaced peoples’ housing.

Of course, even though the war ended, nobody won. In Zagreb people wanted to forget, but refugee families like the narrator’s are still writing letter after letter to the authorities in the hope of getting proper accommodation rather than camping out all in one room at a run-down hotel. The family separated from the father, who was left behind in Vukovar, and is now missing, presumed dead. The uncertainty of his fate and the lack of paperwork to confirm his death meant less rights in terms of benefits and housing.

These are similar themes to those tackled in Yugoslavia My Fatherland, but the viewpoint is resolutely that of the child here. We first meet her at the age of nine, when she first becomes aware of the war because her father tells her off for humming ‘Whoever claims Serbia is small is lying’. We grow up alongside her, see her almost superficial preoccupations about fitting in, putting on her make-up in secret and going out with boys, fighting with her older brother, being exasperated by her embarrassing grandparents. A normal teenager, whose normality keeps getting punctured by stark reminders of her ‘barely tolerated’ status. No wonder she soon develops a shell of cynicism around her:

It’s the hardest when they turn you down the first time, afterward you get used to it and you don’t care.

Seeing everything through the child’s naive perspective was a deliberate choice. The author says: ‘I knew I didn’t want to fall back on the wisdom of hindsight, I tried to set aside my adult perspective. I also didn’t want to spare anybody, including myself, in terms of treating with honesty the emotions I’d felt and my memories.’

In conclusion, both books are powerful and poignant reminders that destruction of life as we know it is always just a heartbeat away. I would recommend Goran Vojnović if you want the grown-up trying to analyse the situation calmly after the events, seeking to understand the mindset of the nationalists and finding himself not quite able to excuse them. But if you want to feel part of the events, how it feels to be a child refugee albeit in far more ‘civilised’ circumstances than many refugees experience today, and that life is not all bad, that children will be children and find ways to play, rejoice, forget and make suffering bearable, then Ivana Bodrožić is the way to go.

#EU27Project after a Year of Neglect

It turns out that it’s not only the UK government that is doing a bad job with their Brexit mission. I have also been somewhat neglectful of my duties as reader, reviewer and curator of the #EU27Project in 2018. Nevertheless, I’m delighted to say that some wonderful bloggers have been linking to the page even without my prodding, reminding and thanking them.

Just to remind you all, because it’s been such a long time that I may even have some new readers on my blog, this is the plan to read books from all the 27 countries that will continue to remain in the EU after the UK pulls out. Read, review, link. That is it. Multiple entries from the same country are accepted (even the norm). But ideally I would love to have at least one representative from those harder to reach/ not so much translated countries that make up the EU.

So I am very pleased to observe that we now have over 100 entries (there are a few duplicate entries and a lost Norwegian trying desperately to join the EU).

Some countries are over-represented – and that’s probably true when it comes to translation and publication. It should come as no surprise that Germany (19) and France (16) are the top runners, but you may be surprised to hear that Austria is punching well above its weight in terms of population (10). That probably has something to do with Lizzy and Caroline’s wonderful initiative of German Literature Month, which is about literature written in the German language rather than just the one produced in Germany.

Other small countries (or sparsely populated ones) that have done well are The Netherlands (7) and Finland (6). It’s somewhat surprising that Ireland hasn’t done better (6), given that there are no translation issues and so many of the great writers of the English tongue are in fact Irish. I also expected Italy (6) and Spain (5) to do better, given their vast literary tradition and what seems to be a respectable amount of translation into English.

If this had been a crime fiction community, I suspect that Sweden would have done far, far better, but it’s only had one review so far! In contrast, teensy Denmark and Belgium have had 4 each. Of the more recent EU members, Poland leads the way with just 3, while Czechia, Croatia and Latvia have 2 each.

Notable absences from this list: Hungary (although I did do a vlog which included the first volume of Miklos Banffy’s Transylvanian trilogy), Romania (because I was too picky about which book should represent my home country) and Greece – oddly, three of the countries I know best. from the EU. I have a couple of reviews to upload for Estonia and Croatia And I’m still struggling to find anything from Cyprus, Malta or Luxembourg. So I’d be especially grateful for any reviews that you might have reflecting all the countries in this paragraph!

Sincerely hoping that you will take part too if you read any books from any of the #EU27 countries between now and the end of March, I will leave you with this map of all the traditional Christmas sweets from Europe. (Not all of them are 100% correct, nor are they all EU, but we’re all about approximations for now!) Happy Holidays!

WWWednesday 19 December, 2018

A lovely meme to help us catch up with ourselves and others, as hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words. I only get a chance to join in once a month, and what a difference a month makes!

The three Ws are:

  • What are you currently reading?
  • What did you recently finish reading?
  • What do you think you’ll read next?

Currently reading:

Lou Sarabadzic: La vie verticale

I met Lou at the Asymptote Book Club meeting last month and completely fell in love with her wit, erudition and style. Then I discovered that we both lived in virtually the same place (not at the same time) in France. Her novel, available in e-book format from her French publisher, Publienet, is about overcoming OCD and depression, and about rebuilding your life abroad.

Rein Raud: The Death of the Perfect Sentence, transl. Matthew Hyde

My Estonian contribution for the #EU27Project is an experimental spy thriller, if you can imagine such a thing, set in the dying days of the Soviet empire and the rise of the Estonian independence movement. Fascinating, oddly familiar and yet also completely new insights. Very funny too in parts.

Just finished:

S.J.I. Holliday: The Lingering

An idealistic, isolated community, suspicious villagers, an abandoned hospital teeming with ghosts, a couple trying to run away from their troubles… Wicker Man meets The Turn of the Screw with elements of The Lovely Bones thrown in for good measure. 

Petra Hammesfahr: The Sinner, transl. John Brownjohn

After seeing the first two episodes of this US crime series (1st season), I was very curious to read the original German novel that it was based on. There are significant differences between book and TV adaptation, but both are excellent at keeping your adrenaline on high alert. You can read my full review on Crime Fiction Lover.

Up next:

I don’t usually like Christmassy reads, but am quite fond of wintry scenes, so here are a couple of escapist books I am considering for my next read:

Antonio Manzini: Black Run

Well, who doesn’t dream of perfect snow conditions on the perfect black run? The Aosta Valley in Italy sounds idyllic, it’s just on the other side of my beloved Mont Blanc, and anything to do with skiing makes me happy, especially since I know I won’t be doing any skiing this year. I suppose I can also use it for Italy for #EU27Project.

Sigrid Nunez: The Last of Her Kind

I’d been reading about The Friend, the latest book by Sigrid Nunez, which won the National Book Award in the US this year. But I thought I’d start with this earlier book by the same author, about a complicated college friendship between two young women of very different social backgrounds (against the backdrop of 1968, the 1970s and then decades later).

I’d love to hear what you’ve got planned for reading over Christmas. Above all, I hope you get some time to read!

Last But One Book Haul of 2018

I still have some books that are winging their way towards me, and I may still be swayed by one or two reviews or recommendations before I close up book-buying-shop next year. Of course, I will still have the Asymptote Book Club subscription to stave off my hunger pangs. And a couple of hundred of unread books on my shelves…

So, with that caveat, what are my most recent acquisitions?

First of all, #EU27Project noblesse oblige, I had to find a book for Bulgaria and Slovakia. Well, strictly speaking, I’d already found a book for Slovakia but then I  met a translator from Slovakian, Julia Sherwood, at the Asymptote Book Club meeting, and so I had to buy one of the books she translated. This is Pavel Vilikovsky’s Fleeting Snow, a gentle set of reminiscences about a long marriage as the wife of the narrator gradually starts to lose her memory. A very different novel about the fall of Communism in Bulgaria, Party Headquarters by Georgi Tenev seems to not have found many fans abroad, but that rather incited me to read it and make up my own mind.

From publishers, I received two crime novels to review. Bitter Lemon Press sent Petra Hammersfahr’s novel The Sinner formed the basis for the recent TV series, although the setting has been changed from Germany to the US. Many of the links are more obvious in the book than in the TV series, so it’s interesting to compare the two. Meanwhile, Simon and Schuster sent RJ Bailey’s  Winner Kills All, featuring female Personal Protection Officer Sam Wylde. In the wake of the huge success of the TV series The Bodyguard, this book series may do very well indeed!

Most of the other new arrivals were the result of reading other people’s blogs. So hereby I am naming and shaming them! Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings is responsible for Portraits without Frames: Poems by Lev Ozerov, essentially a group portrait of Russian writers of the 1920s and 30s in free verse form. Jacquiwine’s Journal needs to take a bow for Brian Moore’s The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, although it may take a while until I summon up the courage to read this very sad tale. Melissa Beck, who blogs at Bookbinder’s Daughter, is the one who first drew my attention to Odessa Stories by Isaac Babel, translated by Boris Dralyuk (who also is one of the main translators of Ozerov). Last but not least, Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best, with her #6Degrees link for December made me stumble across Black Run by Antonio Manzini, and I remembered I’d come across it before, mentioned by another Italian writer, and my ordering finger was once again hyper-active.

Who needs divorce lawyers sucking you dry, when your online friends also make sure they finish off your budget through their recommendations?