When I went to Quais du Polar in Lyon in 2016, I was asking the booksellers what editions of Pascal Garnier and Jean-Claude Izzo they had (I was stocking up for my imminent departure from France). One of them told me: ‘If you like those writers, you might want to try this new novel by a Belgian author, Patrick Delperdange.’ It’s a sort of rural noir and its title indicates the bleakness of the subject matter: ‘If all the gods were to abandon us’.
Three years later, I finally read the book and it is indeed a very dark yet beguiling tale set in a tiny Belgian village close to the French border. There aren’t very many parts of Belgium that aren’t overpopulated, but this area seems to be remote and devoid of inhabitants. So much so that one of the main characters, a young girl Céline, escaping a violent relationship, walks down the road for miles without seeing another soul. She is somewhat relieved when she hitches a ride with a kindly but fairly taciturn old man Léopold, who offers her a place in his house overnight ‘if you don’t mind ghosts’.
Typical horror story trope, you might think, but in fact Léopold is a widower and the old farmhouse is still full of his wife’s presence. It is also rather primitive, without a proper bathroom, so Céline is grateful for his hospitality but also understandably eager to move on. She leaves the house to continue her solitary journey, but it starts snowing and she gets bitten by two fierce dogs and collapses in the snow. Luckily, Léopold finds her, brings her home and calls in a doctor to tend to her wounds. The dogs belong to Maurice, a bad-tempered local man, and when he finds out that one of his dogs has been wounded, he is furious.
The young girl and the old man start living together in his house, at least until she is able to walk without a crutch again,providing each other some much-needed comfort, without asking too many questions. But of course their situation gives rise to local gossip. One of the people who doesn’t know what to make of the stories is Josselin, Maurice’s younger brother. Regarded as somewhat simple-minded by his brother and by the village community, he is a bit creepy about women (and about Maurice’s former wife, who ran off with a waiter), but nevertheless an excellent observer of all the little human foibles.
The story is told in short chapters alternating between the points of view of Céline, Léopold and Josselin. None of them is quite what they appear to be at first sight, none of them are particularly likeable. They each have a darker back story and this meshing of stories is heightened by the closed-off, suspicious, very drab and grey community that they are living in. Things soon take a turn for the worse, and it does seem indeed as though there is no hope, no salvation, no well-disposed god for these three (very fallible, very pitiful) human beings.
There are indeed elements of Pascal Garnier here: eccentric, ambiguous characters (who turn out to be quite different than you might expect at first), the sombre atmosphere of storm clouds gathering and then the flashes of violence that seem to come out of nowhere, a sense of inexorable fate about the unfolding of the story. There are differences, however. Everything is told in the first person – and, although in many cases the protagonists are lying to themselves, that does make for a more personal and passionate take on things. The ending is also quite ambiguous, as if the author had decided that he wanted to offer a glimmer of hope to the readers after all.
Above all, it is a perfect portrayal of the flat, wooded Belgian countryside, which becomes another main character, without ever being described in great detail: neither beautiful nor ugly, neither welcoming nor hostile, a landscape that is only charming to visitors, a place that seems to promise sanctuary but ends up poisoning you. This is the landscape adjacent to the First World War battlefields, after all.
The book has not been translated into English, but I think it would certainly appeal to readers of Garnier. It would also make for a good film.
Although there have been moments over the past 3-4 years when I thought I would never want to hear about or see Greece again, it is in fact a place that is very special to me and my family. My children are half-Greek, I’ve spent lots of holidays in Greece, I learnt to speak (and read a little) Greek and of course when I fell in love with a Greek back at university, I went through a period of intense study of Greek history and literature.
Constantine Cavafy soon became one of my favourite poets: his sensual descriptions of night-time encounters in the fascinating melting-pot of cultures that is the city of Alexandria are soooo me (which is probably why I loved The Alexandria Quartet so much in my teens). I have about 4-5 different translations of Cavafy’s poems in English, so you can imagine that when I heard about this novel that reimagines a key moment in Cavafy’s life, I had to get it.
Ersi Sotiropoulos is a very prolific, award-winning writer in Greece, but not much of her work has been translated into English as far as I can tell. What’s Left of the Night may be about to change her reputation abroad: it was translated into French and won the 2017 Prix Méditerranée Étranger, and in 2018 the English translation by Karen Emmerich (published by New Vessel Press) was talked about and reviewed quite a bit.
It is 1897 and Cavafy is in Paris, the last stop on the European tour he has embarked upon with his brother. He is a clerk in the Ministry of Public Works in Alexandria, the city that he considers home, although the family has also lived for a while in Constantinople and (surprisingly and far less romantically) in Liverpool. He has published some poems by that point, but largely for close friends – but his best known poems are still to come, and in fact most of his reputation was posthumous, as he was not following the current ‘fashion’ in poetry.
So the novel traces his possible sources of inspiration: Ancient Greek history, erotic desires for men (about which he feels somewhat conflicted still), feeling suffocated by his family and by society. We see Cavafy’s obsession with finding the perfect line or the right word – he was a skilled craftsman and a perfectionist, and had a rather unique use of the Greek language that perhaps only someone brought up abroad could have. This makes him fiendishly difficult to translate, but in this novel Sotiropoulos tries to capture some of the feel, the rhythm, the sensibilities of the poet… and succeeds most of the time.
I’m not quite sure if it is historically accurate to say that this trip to Paris marked a turning point in Cavafy’s writing, but that turning point undeniably did occur at some time:
The great need for rupture in his poetry he had felt so strongly in recent months, the reckless urge to break the rules… to share free of lyricism and elegance, to banish all influences from other poets and movements, to become a movement of his own, may in the end have reflected a need for rupture in his life… How could someone who lived a conventional, conservative, medocre life write important peotry? How could he speak of great passions, heroic ages?
In Alexandria he felt mediocre, a failure. He may have admired Baudelaire and Oscar Wilde, but he did not want to write like them. In Paris, he hoped that he would feel closer to the artistic pulse of the ‘fin de siecle’, but everywhere he goes, he carries the the curse of the city, that lazy, dirty, inadequate city with him, as he says in one of his most famous poems. He cannot leave behind his prejudices, his impatience, his dark and selfish impulses. This is no hero-worship of Cavafy we find in this book, but an acknowledgment that, while the poetic process remains mysterious and unfathomable, it is all about transformation. Taking sorrow, shame, anger, fear of mediocrity and turning it into… complexity. And complexity is beautiful.
This is one of the set of books that have been cluttering my desk for months, as I got sidetracked from the #EU27Project. The Danish entry is a book I randomly found at the Senate House library, by an author who seems to have been very popular in her home country but who hasn’t been much translated: Tove Ditlevsen.
This book Early Spring (translated by Tiina Nunnally) is about her first eighteen years growing up in Copenhagen, dreaming of becoming a poet, how she persisted against all odds, her working class childhood and complete lack of interest and support of her parents.
Tove was born in 1918 in a small apartment in Copenhagen, the year the war ended and the 8 hour working day was introduced. Her older brother Edvin had been born the year the war started and the working day was still 12 hours long. Her mother was severe, distant and cold; little Tove lived in fear of her, her hopes of being loved or appreciated systematically and repeatedly crushed. Her father reads the occasional book despite the fact that his wife says: ‘People turn strange from reading. Everything written in books is a lie.’ He is the only one who understands her love of reading, but he is weak, especially when he is fired from his job at the age of 45 and struggles to find any steady employment. The banks go under and Tove’s grandmother loses all her savings. Her brother teases her mercilessly about her attempts at poetry, although it later emerges that he was secretly rather proud of her.
This is not a memoir full of charm and funny anecdotes. It depicts all the harshness, the ‘sharp corners’ of Tove’s life, the hardship of a particular time and place.
Childhood is long and narrow like a coffin, and you can’t get out of it on your own… Childhood is dark and it’s always moaning like a little animal that’s locked in a cellar and forgotten. It comes out of your throat like your breath in the cold, and sometimes it’s too little, other times too big. It never fits exactly. It’s only when it has been cast off that you can look at it calmly and talk about like an illness you’ve survived.
However, there are lighter moments, and that is because Tove herself, in spite of all that life throws at her, has an indomitable spirit. She pursues her literary ambitions with single-minded focus, even when the editor who had promised to take a look at her work dies, even when she has to leave school and start working in hotel kitchens at the age of 15. She is candid, observant, idealistic, always eager to learn, curious about the world and ever so slightly mischievous. She makes fun of her early, entirely derivative poetic efforts, in which she talks about love and loss and other experiences that she has never had personally. For example, at the age of twelve:
… all of my poems were still ‘full of lies’, as Edvin said. Most of them dealt with love, and if you were to believe them, I was living a wanton life filled with interesting conquests.
Although Bulgaria is Romania’s southern neighbour, and although one of my best friends at primary school was Katya, a Bulgarian, I know next to nothing about the literature of this country. So I rather randomly picked Georgi Tenev’s novel Party Headquarters, transl. Angela Rodel. Partly because it was the Winner of the 2015 Contemporary Bulgarian Writers Contest, but mostly because it was easily available to order online.
I read it back in February or March and have very nearly forgotten what it was about and what I thought of it. The plot is not the most important thing here, which is just as well, since I found it quite difficult to follow: it skips between the present-day, soon days following the fall of Communism and the summer of the Chernobyl disaster. The narrator is a man who has been tasked by his dying father-in-law, a former high-ranking Communist Party official known as K-shev, to transport a suitcase containing one and a half million euros. Many ex-Communists were suspected of squirrelling their ill-gotten wealth abroad so as to start new lives after regime collapse in their countries. The narrator hated his father-in-law and remembers all of the key moments that cemented that hatred, while wandering around Hamburg, cavorting with prostitutes and generally being a bit at a loss.
Disjointed and disturbing, just like its narrator, the novel is perhaps designed to show the lingering after-effects of a dictatorship, that keeps people in mental prisons long after they are nominally set free. But it does so in such a convoluted way, combining the sexual excesses of Philip Roth with the pretentiousness of David Foster Wallace, that I soon lost interest.
But I do remember sighing as I put it away and saying to myself: ‘Why do all the books that get translated from the former East Bloc have to be such hard going?’ After reading the books for Slovakia, Estonia, Slovenia, Latvia for my #EU27Project, I can’t help feeling that publishers of English translations from these countries have certain expectations, because they all share certain characteristics: experimental prose, anti-chronological narrative, grim subject matter about repression and dictatorship or war, very earnest and ‘worthy’ literary works.
Yet each of these countries has no doubt got a huge variety of literature, covering all genres, all tastes. I recently mentioned Lavina Braniste, who gives us a very Romanian Bridget Jones. Estonian author Indrek Hargla has a fantastic crime series set in medieval Talinn, but only one has been translated into English (and rather sloppily at that). Bulgarian short story writer Deyan Enev has been compared to Lydia Davis for his lyrical, almost flash-fiction short pieces, but there are others who have yet to be translated. It’s a shame that we only get a very one-sided view of literature from these countries.
This book by Austrian writer Robert Menasse (step-brother of Eva Menasse, whom I’ve mentioned previously on this blog), translated by Jamie Bulloch, is the quintessential novel for the #EU27Project – in fact, for the EU 28, because the capital city of the title is Brussels and the United Kingdom is still within the EU, albeit reluctantly.
I won’t say too much about the plot, such as it is: the European Commission is getting ready to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary and wants to boost its image in the public eye. Sadly, the preparations are in chaos, not only because of the usual infighting and stubbornness of competing egos, but because into the mix come runaway pigs, dead bodies and Auschwitz survivors who refuse to conform to the plan. Jamie Bulloch, as always, does an excellent job of making the vicious sound funny, yet injecting a tragic note into the proceedings as well.
The plot is essentially an excuse to send up the complicated hierarchical structures and nationalist impulses of the various countries and their officials within the European Commission. I particularly relished the description of the British delegate.
Like most of the British officials, George Morland wasn’t especially liked in the Commission. The British… only accepted one binding rule: that fundamentally they were an exception. In truth the British were always suspected of neglecting the interests of the Community for the benefit of London’s interests. In many instances the suspicion was justified.
Beneath the farcical situations and humour, there are sharp, swift arrows that pierce the pretentiousness of many bureaucratic ‘types’ as well as nations, not just the Brits.
Strozzi was just plump enough to demonstrate that he was no ascetic, a fact reinforced by the signal red of his waistcoat. Strozzi was an anomaly at this level of power, which was dominated by the ‘Enarques’, graduates of those elite schools such as the Ecole Nationale d’Administration, slim men in discreet, not-too-expensive suits (ascetic in every respect) capable of negotiating for hours on end and all night long too. They appeared to need barely any food and as good as no sleep, they got by with few words few gestures, they avoided sugaring their souls with the sweetness of empthy, they didn’t need a public arena… they eschewed the outside gloss.
Yet, despite the conformity of these faceless bureaucrats, there is a similar cloning effect within the British contingent, with all of the advantages that senior official Grace Atkinson believes it brings:
If the foreign secretary’s private office in London had to reach a decision, the discussion lasted half an hour at most, including all the rituals and small talk at the beginning and end. People there had the same background, they were of comparable stock, which meant they had also been to the same schools, spoke the same language with the same accent by which they recognised each other, they all had spouses from the same social class, between 80 and 90 per cent of their biographical details were identical… But here in Brussels? Around the table there were alwas people with different languages and of different cultural backgrounds, many from working-class and artisan families too, especially from the eastern countries, with very different experiences, and everything that Grace Atkinson was used to resolving in twenty minutes here took hours, days, weeks.
Tongue-in-cheek endorsement of ‘simplicity’ and ‘decisiveness’ over consultation and compromise, clearly!
There are also some idealists, who are about to become disillusioned. There are some outbursts which sound heartfelt, almost as if the author has gone on his own political rant through the mouth of one of his characters. There are opportunities to pause and reflect on the future of the EU – although any luminous vision is punctured instantly by ridiculous suggestions.
All in all, this is a wicked little satire, very similar in vein although less compassionate than the depiction of the UN in Shirley Hazzard’s People in Glass Houses.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!