Two Contrasting Satirical Works: Spike Milligan and Dan Lungu

One way of dealing with traumatic historical events is by using satire or black humour. The Romanians have an expression for it ‘faci haz de necaz’ – making fun of misery/trouble. Coincidentally, two of the books I read recently for two very different projects #EU27Project and #DavidBowieBookClub, both deal with painful subjects in recent history, but they have very different approaches.

Dan Lungu: Sint o baba comunista! (I’m an Old Communist Biddy)

The collapse of the Berlin wall and the so-called Second World (that uncomfortable compromise between developed First and undeveloped Third World) was accompanied by a near total erasure of Eastern Europe with all that it stood for. It was not just a political system that collapsed but a whole way of life, culture, set of values, and they were replaced virtually overnight by something that wasn’t necessarily always better. Furthermore, things that were flawed but nevertheless precious to this generation were now openly derided, everything they ever built or contributed was sometimes brutally torn apart. So many of them felt that their whole lives had been wasted – a painful realisation.

I have heard this complaint from many of my elderly relatives, and this is described very realistically by Dan Lungu in this book. Ten years after the fall of Communism in Romania, Emilia is an old-age pensioner, who now has to deal with the fact that the world she has known all her life and learnt to live in (with all its imperfections) has gone forever. Her daughter Alice is now settled in Canada, married to a Canadian, and phones to ask her how she is planning to vote. This simple telephone conversation (repeated many, many times over in all of Romania in the late 1990s, early 2000s) represents the perennial struggle between generations – the nostalgia for a past that never quite existed in the way we fondly remember it now vs. the more forward-looking, able to cope with uncertainty and complexity attitude of the younger generation. It triggers some soul-searching in Emilia, as she remembers fragments of her past. Her life had been relatively sheltered: she was working in metallurgy, producing special orders for export, so had access to money and goods, compared to others. For her the fall of Communism has spelled nothing but disillusion and disaster.

Scene from the film adaptation.

‘Don’t you remember the massive queues, going all the way round the corner?’

‘OK, there were queues, but now when you go into a shop, you admire the cutlets, swallow hard and head back out, ‘cos you can’t afford them…I see families starving on TV, with children sleeping on the streets… You wouldn’t see that kind of stuff under Communism.

‘That will change. It takes time – we’re in transition right now, but I’m optimistic.’

‘Of course you’re optimistic when you’re living in Canada or France or America… You just come and live here for a while. You’ll get optimism then with spots on!’

‘What about freedom, Mum? That’s got to be worth something. We were frightened of our own shadows back then. Now you can say whatever you please, write what you want, travel where you like, shout “Down with the government!”‘

‘Travel? Sure, it’s the newly rich who do that, stealing from the things we built. And shouting, of course we can shout till we’re hoarse, no one’s listening anyway.’

There are many funny moments and culture clashes in this story (receiving the Canadian son-in-law in their house is one such classic moment), but it is the kind of ‘sad-funny’ situation that has no resolution. The ending feels a bit rushed – Emilia is questioning her memories of happy life under Communism, or at least understanding that not everyone was equally happy, but there is no real growth or change or resolution. However, it’s a touching portrayal of the dilemma many people were facing at the time (and subsequent corrupt governments have not necessarily made things better.) I’m both happy and sad that it has been translated into English, as I think I would have been the ideal candidate to translate this – I would certainly have loved to do it!

Spike Milligan: Puckoon

As you might expect with Spike Milligan, this is more of a farce than a sad/funny type of satire. It has a very cinematic quality – the detailed descriptions of each character and situation would lend themselves to a madcap TV series, although perhaps some of the (often quite pointless but hilarious) back stories would get lost.

Puckoon is a village in Ireland north east of Sligo. At the time of the partition of Ireland it is accidentally cut in two by the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. This leads to ridiculous situations such as having a funeral procession pass through customs to cross the border which lies between the church and the graveyard.

‘What have you got in the coffin?’

‘You must be joking,’ said the priest, his face going purple with anger…

‘I’m not joking, sir, I am merely doing my duty.’

‘Very well. Inside the coffin is the body of 98-year-old Dan Doonan. Now let us pass!’

‘Not quite finished yet, sir. You intend to bury an Irish citizen in what is now British territory?… I presume the deceased will be staying this side permanently?… Then he will require the following: an Irish passport stamped with a visa, to be renewed annually with a visa for the rest of his – ‘ Barrington almost said ‘life’ – ‘stay,’ he concluded.

While the absurdity of government bureaucracy is really well presented in the excerpt quoted, in other instances the satire is less successful. My objection is perhaps influenced by the fact that the eccentric villagers are so ridiculous and larger than life, that it reinforces stereotypes about the Irish: permanently drunk, garrulous, easy to anger, doing things the wrong way round.

The other thing which made me uncomfortable was that, although the book was published in 1963, so before the Troubles proper started in Ireland, the farcical way in which it handles the rather traumatic subject of national identity and sense of belonging would have made it almost unbearable to read during the period that followed, when violence became so common-place both in Northern Ireland and in England. At heart I suppose I agree with Milligan that nationalism and religious fanaticism is ripe for satire, but I missed the undercurrent of sadness that would turn this into a moral lesson.

The book was adapted for a feature film in 2002, so after the Good Friday agreement, when people could laugh once more about the border. I wonder if it will become once more an unbearable topic in future…

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Friday Fun: Ireland in the Sun

To the tune of ‘Islands in the Sun’, here are some pictures from our lovely trip to Ireland last week.

My favourite place indoors, of course. Trinity College Library.
Guess what symbol this is?
View over Dublin and Howth.
Wicklow Mountains. No sun but spectacular clouds blowing past.
Old monastery, graveyard and siege-ready tower.
Lough Bray Lower.
The sea, the sea at Bray.
The grounds at Malahide Castle.
Cosy three-bedroom medieval castle at Malahide.
This was a common sight in Ireland and reminded me how I’ve never seen the Union Jack flying together with the EU flag in the UK even before the Brexit vote.

It’s Been a Week and a Half!

Oh, I can pun with the best of them, can’t I? ‘Cos it’s been slightly longer than a week since my last summary, and also a very eventful week, ha ha!

The most important event was our trip to Ireland. I’ve only ever been to Dublin for business and have previously seen mainly the airport, St. Stephen’s Green and the inside of some banks. This time I visited a good friend of mine from school, who lives just outside Dublin, and she treated us like royalty. She took me and the kids on various day trips to places whose names I struggle to spell or remember: the port of Dún Laoghaire, Malahide Castle and gardens, Trinity College Library of course with the Book of Kells, the Wicklow mountains with their dark scrubland, Bray and Cabinteely, Dalkey and Howth. We were extremely lucky with the weather and the pictures tell the story much better than I could. You may well expect a Friday Fun post on this theme very soon! However, one highlight was seeing my friend’s children and mine discuss Irish history: as a footnote to British history or as a nation struggling to free itself. (Curriculum and biased interpretation in action!)

Before leaving for Ireland, we also went to see the Sondheim musical Assassins at the RADA with their final year students, a play about the best-known successful and unsuccessful assassination attempts against American presidents. Given the school shooting which followed shortly afterwards, the wit seems almost unbearably mordant in retrospect. If Sondheim is suggesting that the American dream is of ‘everyone having the right to be happy’, even if that happiness involves killing others, then yes, it becomes less funny.

Finally, on Monday 19th February, I found myself going ‘just a little bit viral’, as my boys would call it. WordPress have highlighted my feather haibun post as a Blog to Discover. So I have been getting far more than my usual share of visits and likes. Thank you to all for reading and sharing, here’s to hoping that you won’t be disappointed that my posts are usually far more prosaic. I also hope I will get to know some of you better!

#EU27Project Update in May

After four months of #EU27Project, I have to admit I have not been the hardest- working reviewer. I have only linked to six books in total (and two of those are from the same country, France, while the rest are : Germany, Czechia, Ireland and the Netherlands), so in reality only 5 of the 27 countries have been represented in 4 months. At this rate, I have little chance of finishing this project this year – but, unlike some politicians, I never thought it was going to be an easy and quick process, so I’m allowing myself time to continue this project next year.

However, I’m pleased to say that other book bloggers have been far busier than me, so, since my last update in March, we have moved from 16 reviews to 41.

France is the biggest mover, from 0 in the first batch to 6 reviews in the current one. Susan Osborne reviews two very different types of books: Marie Suzan’s poignant Her Father’s Daughter and the lighter French Rhapsody by Antoine Laurain. Kate Jackson reviews a book by Sebastian Japrisot, one of my favourite French crime writers, while Karen from Booker Talk considers a contemporary crime novel Hell’s Gate by Laurent Gaudé. I have also reviewed two French books, the not quite satisfactory Men by Marie Darrieussecq and the dark but very funny and musical Les harmoniques by Marcus Malte.

Austria is also a popular choice for us book bloggers (a trend which I heartily approve!). It already featured in the first batch and has notched up an additional five reviews, although, to be fair, three of those are for short stories or novellas by Arthur Schnitzler by Jonathan: Late Fame, The Spring Sonata and A Confirmed BachelorLike Chekhov, Schnitzler was a doctor as well as a writer, and very much concerned with the human psyche. He describes perfectly the darkness in the Viennese soul at the turn of the 20th century (and not only then). Kate reviews a book set in the same period, Leo Perutz’ The Master of the Day of JudgementSusan reviews one of my favourite recent reads, Robert Seethaler’s The Tobacconist, with a guest appearance from Sigmund Freud.

Reviews from the Netherlands continue to trickle in. Karen attempts The Evenings, but does she like it any more than Lizzy did in the first two months of the project? Meanwhile, Susan found The Boy by Wytske Versteeg deeply unsettling. Ireland also features with two new reviews, a new one for The Glorious Heresieswhich makes it the most popular book so far (3 reviews in total), and Anne Enright’s The Green Road

The last country on the list with two new reviews is Italy, with the crime fiction of Augusto de Angelis and the story of the breakdown of a marriage by Domenico Starnone.

The remaining countries featured in the selection of March and April have been: Norway, represented by Anne Holt – Norway is not in the EU, but we will leave that link there anyway; Denmark with Dorthe Nors’ Mirror Shoulder SignalPoland with Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg, Czech Republic or Czechia with Bohumil Hrabal’s Closely Observed Trains. The French might take exception with Marguerite Yourcenar representing Belgium rather than France, but that was Jonathan’s choice and that country is rather under-represented.

After a strong start in the first batch of reviews, Germany only managed one review in this round, a lesser-known Heinrich Böll oeuvre.

So what will the next two months bring? Personally, I intend to read more in this category. Perhaps two or three in May? I am currently reading the road-trip book by Andrzej Stasiuk (Poland), and will move on to poems from Malta and Pessoa’s pseudo-diary The Book of Disquiet (Portugal). But, as we all know, my plans for reading don’t always work out and I get easily side-tracked.

Special thanks and celebrations for Susan Osborne, Kate Jackson, Jonathan from Intermittencies of the Mind and Karen from Booker Talk, who have been the most prolific reviewers over these past two months, but thank you to everyone who has contributed, read, tweeted about this project.

 

The #EU27Project: Two Months On…

It’s almost exactly two months since I dreamt up the #EU27Project of reading a book from each of the countries remaining in the EU, and about 7 weeks since I set up a separate page for linking reviews. So it’s time for a bit of an update.

I’m delighted to say that a number of you have responded – and it’s doubly appreciated, because it’s not the most intuitive linking method. You have to write the country, the author or book title and then your name in brackets, as it doesn’t have separate lines for each item of information.

We have 16 reviews and blogger Lizzy Siddal has been the most prolific reviewer to date. She has posted two books from the Netherlands: Gerard Reve’s masterpiece from 1947 translated at last into English, and Esther Gerritsen’s description of a toxic mother/daughter relationship. Also, two from Austria: short stories by Stefan Zweig (perennial old favourite) and a disquieting thriller by Bernhard Aichner. There is also a sly dig at behind the scenes of literary prizes by Filippo Bologna from Italy and a collection of short stories by Spanish writer Medardo Fraile described as ‘one of the best I’ve ever read’ – high praise indeed and it’s gone straight onto my TBR list. So here is a bouquet for Lizzy and her sterling work!

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Netherlands is front-runner in terms of number of book reviews. In addition to the two by Lizzy, there is also a review of Herman Koch’s story of personal and social meltdown The Dinner. Joint top of the leaderboard is Germany, with three historical novels. Susan Osborne reviews Summer Before the Dark, a fictional account of Stefan Zweig and Josef Roth spending the summer of 1936 together in Ostende, refugees in vacation land. Joseph Kanon’s thriller Leaving Berlin is set in post-war, post-partition Berlin and is reviewed by Maphead. Finally, Ricarda Huch’s novella The Last Summer is set in Russia just on the cusp of the 1917 revolution.

There are two book reviews for Ireland, both for Lisa McInerney’s riotous description of the less touristy side of Cork The Glorious Heresies: one by Kate Vane and one by myself. Finland can also boast two reviews, both for historical novels: White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen reviewed in French by Sylvie Heroux from Montreal; while Mrs. Peabody investigates Kjell Westö’s The Wednesday Clubwhich provides a rather grim insight into Finland’s troubled history.

muse
A Greek muse, from theoi.com

Peirene Press is represented with no less than 3 reviews: in addition to White Hunger and The Last Summer, there is also a Danish representative The Murder of Halland which is not so much a crime novel as a story about grieving, reviewed by Karen at BookerTalk.

Another publisher which is well represented here is Pushkin Press, with 5 reviews, most of them by Lizzy, but also Summer Before the Dark by Volker Weidermann. So well done to these two independent publishers for making so much European culture available to us in the UK!

Last but not least, one of the youngest EU members, Croatia, is represented by the book Girl at War by Sara Novic, highly recommended by Maphead.

In terms of personal plans, I’ve already veered away from my original ones. I oomed and aahed about my selection for Germany, gave up on considering Kati Hiekkapelto for the Finnish entry (because her book takes place in Serbia), switched my Irish entry, found a women’s writing collective for Lithuania (still to be reviewed) and am still conflicted about France… And I still have zero inspiration for Malta or Cyprus.

Another thank you to all participants, from my garden...
Another thank you to all participants, from my garden…

Thank you to all the participants and I hope to see many more of you in the months to come. I believe there are a few of you who have reviewed books which would fall into the EU27 category, but have not linked up yet, so please do so if you get a chance. There is no deadline, no pressure, and absolutely no shame in back-linking to older reviews from late 2016 or early 2017.

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#EU27Project: Ireland – The Glorious Heresies

gloriousheresiesA fizzy little corker of a debut novel set in Cork (sorry, couldn’t resist the pun!) and my first entry in the #EU27Project. Lisa McInerney takes us into the lives of those who have seen little of the Celtic Tiger benefits: misfits, rebels, people who have just given up.

The plot is quite complex and takes place over a number of years, but let’s see if I can briefly whet your appetite. First, there’s Ryan Cusak, 15 years old at the start of the novel, who can’t wait to grow up and get his revenge against his drunkard of a father, who often beats him. Although he is quite bright at school and keen to impress his girlfriend, the seemingly unattainable Karine D’Arcy, he is also a drug dealer and just can’t stop getting into trouble.

Tony is Ryan’s Dad, a widower with six children who is overwhelmed by life. When an old mate of his, Jimmy, a notorious Cork gangster, asks him to help with a little ‘cleaning’ work (i.e. getting rid of a body), he just can’t turn down that opportunity. But, of course, he is not quite up to the standard expected of a criminal.

Jimmy has a reputation, Tony more of a stench.

It’s Jimmy’s mother, Maureen, who mistook the man for an intruder and killed him with a Holy Stone, so her son is sorting out the mess. Maureen has been dragged back to Cork from London by her son’s misplaced sense of loyalty and guilt and housed in an abandoned quayside building which Jimmy had previously used as a brothel. Maureen had Jimmy out of wedlock, and was forced to flee her hometown when her parents took the baby away from her and raised him as their own. So she is remarkably clear-eyed about Jimmy’s shortcomings and completely at odds with the Catholic church, resentful of her ‘years of penitence with no sin to show for it.’

The victim was a skinny junkie called Robbie and initially no one knows or cares about his disappearance except for his girlfriend, ex-hooker Georgie. But then Tony and Ryan’s interfering neighbour Tara, described as ‘a vulture feeding off carcasses’, mentions something about Tony and Robbie knowing each other, so Georgie begins to investigate. Along the way, she finds refuge with a group of missionaries, even though she doesn’t believe at all in God, and meets Maureen during her door-to-door distribution of flyers duty. I’ll quote a bit more extensively selections from this scene, because it gives a good feel for the author’s brilliant use of humour.

‘I’m here…’ Georgie said, and faltered, and the woman raised her eyebrows.

‘Have I been expecting you?’ Her voice was a tart growl.

‘I’m here,’ Georgie began again. ‘To spread the word of… of Jesus Christ.’

‘You’d think He’d send someone less scatty,’ said the woman. ‘But fine. What has He got to say for Himself?’

Georgie thrust one of the leaflets at the woman.

‘Oh, He’s written it down for you,’ said the woman. ‘Handy.’

‘He says… He says: Go unto … go into the world and proclaim the gospel to… creation. Whoever believes and is baptised will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.’

‘Harsh fecker, isn’t He?’

George wilted and Clover beckoned her away, but the woman said, ‘What are you doing out preaching on a day like this, anyway? And in your condition?… You want to convert me, you better do it now, because this missive is going in the bin as soon as I close the door… Are you coming in or not?

‘There’s so much in the leaflet,’ Georgie said.

‘Are you going to deny an old lady her consultation, little preacher? Who goes door-to-door and declines the first invitation they get to pontificate?’

lisamcinerneyOf course, the digs at organised religion are very Irish, clearly showing the love-hate relationship every Irish person seems to have with Catholicism. But, as the title of the book indicates, this book is about more than that, it’s about all kinds of ‘heresies’, subverting the established ‘way of seeing things’, providing an alternative to mainstream narrative. The author gives us an insight into the life of the least regarded elements of Irish society and, although these individuals might annoy us with their stupid and self-destructive decisions, they are also acting within the confines of a bleak, depressing town with few if any future prospects. The damage they inflict on themselves are to a certain extent predetermined.

Yes, this is not cheery subject matter, but the author tackles this dingy world of prostitutes, addicts and criminals with verve and vigour. This is fierce tragicomedy at its best, and I found myself laughing and crying on the same page. This book is all about the unforgettable, pitch-perfect voice, raucous storytelling and the moving, pitiful, infuriating characters, with all their flaws.