#20BooksofSummer: No. 2 – Ludovic Bruckstein (transl. Alastair Ian Blyth)

Ludovic Bruckstein: The Trap, transl. Alastair Ian Blyth, published by Istros Books

I’m ashamed to say that I’ve only just now read this book, although I attended the book launch back in September. I was very impressed by the author’s son and his efforts to get his father’s work published in English, as well as the timeliness of these two novellas and what they have to say to a present-day readership. So I am not quite sure why I tarried for so long – except that I always tend to hoard those books that I am pretty sure I will like… for a rainy day.

Both novellas explore life in a small town in the region of Maramures in the north of Romania. At least, it is in Romania nowadays, but over the past 200 years or so the borders have shifted many, many times. This is a part of the country where Romanians, Germans, Hungarians and Jews used to live together cheek by jowl, although the dominant ethnic group changed over the course of history. One thing you can be sure of, however, is that the Jewish community (and probably the Roma, although they don’t get mentioned in this book) were always among the most oppressed.

It seems an idyllic location. Although the land is mountainous and the soil poor, the people who live there are attached to their land. One of the anecdotes in the book states that the peasants from that area were given the choice to move to the far more fertile plains of Banat to the west of Romania, but they refused. However, as the Second World War descends upon this beautiful landscape, some will no longer be given the choice to remain there.

The Trap is the story of Ernst Blumenthal, a young man who had been studying architecture in Vienna before the Anschluss but has now rejoined his family in Sighet. Life is getting harder and harder for Jews and the order has come for them to stitch yellow stars to their clothes.

To Ernst… the law seemed not only humiliating, not only insulting, but also stupid and ridiculous. It was a small town and everybody knew everybody else… Nobody tried to hide what he was. The law was quite simply idiotic. If a person knows you, what is the point of his making you wear a sign to say you are who you are? And if a person doesn’t know you, what is it to him what race you are?… But if the law demanded a distinguishing mark for Jews, why should it not demand a different mark for all the other races? Each with his own star or cross… it would be only right for Hungarians to wear a green star, their favourite colour… and for Romanians to wear a blue star, and for Zipser Germans to wear a black star… and Ukrainians a pink star… and so on and so forth.

All of a sudden, on a peaceful Saturday, thirty Jewish men are rounded up as they are about to head home for the Sabbath meal and kept for hours by the SS at the Palace of Culture. Personally humiliated by one of the young SS commanders, in fear of being enlisted to serve in labour brigades (Jews were not considered trustworthy enough to serve in the army), Ernst is persuaded by his family to hide in the mountains. He finds shelter with a Romanian peasant family, but soon realises that he poses a real danger to them, so he spends most of his time wandering through the forests and hills with a view of his home town. And he can’t help but notice that things are changing down there.

Just yesterday, the prison was as big as the whole country… Now, the town was a prison, surrounded by invisible walls and guarded by soldiers. And tomorrow? What would tomorrow bring? The streets and then the houses would become prisons. And the walls would close in more and more narrowly, and every person would be a prison unto himself. And a prison guard unto himself…

Bruckstein is so good at capturing the gradual encroachment of dictatorship and racism in an average community, where people are neither better nor worse than anywhere else. It is far too easy to be a bystander – and there is no such thing as neutrality when evil starts to dominate.

That is also the case in the second, longer novella entitled The Rag Doll. Here we have nearly an entire life story, rather than just a brief moment in time. Hanna is the much-loved only child of a Jewish watch-maker, whose skills are hugely appreciated in their small (unnamed) town – probably Sighet once more. She falls in love with a Romanian man, Theodor, whose family are considerably wealthier. Despite their families’ objections to their marriage, they elope and settle in a village far away. Even as war comes knocking at their doors, they continue with their regular tea parties and mild gossip spread about by the village midwife. Because Hanna accompanies her husband to church on Sunday, everyone assumes she is a Christian and not a Jew. Although she had not set out to deliberately deceive them, she is forced into hiding more and more as the discriminatory rules against Jews proliferate. Especially when she sees the reaction of the other villagers when it is revealed that their pharmacist might be a Jew:

The notary felt personally offended, the same as if he had caught Maturinski cheating at cards – the same Maturinski with whom he had sat at table so many times, playing poker or rummy or sixty-six or eight-nine, drinking tea laced with rum and neat rum without tea. Worse still, he felt insulted, as if he had caught him stealing from his pocket… Even though Mr Maturinski had never been asked who he was and consequently had never denied it. Nobody had ever seen him set foot in either the church or the synagogue. And he had never been asked who he was because everybody knew that Mr Edvard Maturinski was the village pharmacist, the proprietor of the Hypocrates, an excellent apothecary, always ready to lend a hand… a polite, courteous man, the village ‘gallant’. And hitherto that had been quite sufficient for everybody…

Not everybody is indignant or complicit. The doctor refuses to give up one of his Jewish patients. The village priest faces a real crisis of faith when he is told to tone down his rhetoric to be more compliant with the SS troops whom he regards as the Antichrist. Sadly, although Hanna is spared the worst of the war, she discovers that the end of the war doesn’t mean the end of anti-semitic rhetoric.

The stories of ordinary people caught up in hate-mongering and treating others as subhumans during war-time may seem familiar, but clearly, given our inability to learn from history, these stories need to be told again and again. I may be biased because of the setting – there was so much loving description of the natural surroundings there – but I felt these stories were fresh and added a new historical perspective.  The translation did feel a bit old-fashioned in parts but perhaps that reflects the period and the author’s style.

 

Literary Weeks Are the Best Weeks…

And bookish friends are the best friends… I had a rather lovely week filled with books and literary discussions, just what the doctor ordered: the perfect nourishment to keep my soul from unravelling.

On Tuesday I had another Skype session with my poetry mentor and it is amazing how excited I get about rewriting some poems that I’d set aside because I felt I’d revised them so much that I was sick of them. It took another poet to read them and ask me what I was trying to achieve to actually regain some of that original spark that gave birth to the poem.

Freddie Bruckstein and Susan Curtis, founder of Istros Books.

On Thursday I attended the book launch of The Trap, two novellas by Romanian Jewish author Ludovic Bruckstein, translated by Alastair Ian Blythe. The author’s son, who has been the driving force behind the publication of his father’s literary estate, was there and gave us a very moving account of his father’s life.

Not many people born in that part of Europe can summarise their lives in simple terms. Their choices have been horribly affected by external events.

Freddie Bruckstein

Ludovic grew up in Sighet in North Maramures, just across the street from where Elie Wiesel used to live, but during the Second World War this thriving Jewish community was rounded up and sent to concentration camps. Ludovic discovered he was almost the sole survivor when he returned home after the war. For a while it seemed like he was going to be active and successful in the post-war writing community, with plays written in both Yiddish and Romanian, but he preferred a quieter life in the north of the country rather than becoming an establishment figure in Bucharest. Of course, he was duly expunged from Romanian literary history when he emigrated to Israel in 1972. But the poignant thing is he continued to write in Romanian for the Romanian community in Israel (most of his work was translated into Hebrew as well). I gave my copy of the book to my friend from Geneva days who came to visit me this weekend, and have promptly bought another one for myself. The brief reading we had from the book was absolutely brilliant and the stories really are a stark warning that passivity and political apathy often lead to the same consequences as deliberate malice.

On Friday my friend from Geneva came over to find me after work and we did non-stop literary things all weekend. First, we visited the Writing in Times of Conflict exhibition at Senate House and I discovered that my friend Jenny (a trained actress) had actually played Anne’s mother in a theatrical adaptation of the diaries, and toured with it around Europe.

I could listen to Kathleen Jamie forever…

We then went to the LRB Bookshop to see Kathleen Jamie in conversation with Philip Hoare, talking about her latest collection of essays entitled Surfacing. I’ve had the pleasure of attending a poetry masterclass with Kathleen and have always admired her sincerity and lack of pretension. She told us how she needed to write something to fill in those fallow periods in-between moments of poetic inspiration and for some reason she thought that essays would be easier and more lucrative than poetry (‘and boy, was I ever wrong!’). She also talked about her process, how she never starts out with a theme she can research, but just lets things accrue until she finally detects a pattern right at the end.

What I really appreciate about her writing is that she bears witness to a disappearing world, muses about the connections between past and present (and future) but refuses to romanticise the past or even nature. She doesn’t consider herself a pure nature writer, because it is the collision between humans and nature that she finds most interesting. Furthermore, because she is not as bound by science as archaelogists are, she can use her imagination much more freely to speculate about the lives and emotions of the people whose objects they are unearthing.

We spent a lazy Saturday in Oxford, talking non-stop about writing and reading, having pie and mash in the Covered Market, but unable to visit any of the colleges because of the graduation ceremonies taking place in the Sheldonian. Except Keble College, where I was overjoyed to see a quince tree against the ornate Victorian Gothic background. In the evening, we watched the rather depressing Marianne and Leonard documentary about Leonard Cohen’s Norwegian muse and their life together on the island of Hydra and wondered about the excuses and sacrifices we make for men who are considered geniuses (and not just them).

On Sunday we went to Henley Literary Festival and, although the weather prevented us from taking full advantage of riverside walks, we enjoyed seeing three indomitable women writers talk about why they find family dynamics so fascinating. The writers were:

  1. Harriet Evans, whose inspiration for her latest novel The Garden of Lost and Found came via a strong visual flash of children running down to the bottom of the garden when she heard someone sing the old song ‘The Fairies at the Bottom of the Garden’
  2. Hannah Beckerman, who said she wrote 24 drafts for her novel If Only I Could Tell You, because the characters usually come to her to lie down on a therapy couch and gradually reveal their stories
  3. Janet Ellis, whose second novel How It Was I have on my Kindle but haven’t read yet, said she gets her inspiration when a voice starts plucking at her sleeve and demanding to be heard.
From left to right: Harriet Evans, Hannah Beckerman and Janet Ellis.

There was a great deal of warmth and humour in their interaction, they were almost interviewing each other, or rather, having a delightful literary conversation that we were allowed to witness. One thing that they said really stuck with me: how we assume that older women just fade and vanish from public life or literature, but maybe some of that is by choice. That it is such a relief not to be at the cutting edge anymore, constantly scrutinised, judged by appearance or have every choice analysed. And also what satisfaction it is to have survived things that if anyone had told us in our youth that we would have to endure, we would probably not have believed ourselves capable of enduring.

I was planning not to buy any more books (I’d received quite a few in the post), not even if I could get them signed by the authors – although I was intrigued by the three of them and will certainly borrow their books from the library. But then Jenny took me into the Oxfam bookshop… and, in short, here is the week’s book haul. Alas.

Best Books Read in 2017 Yet to Be Translated

I’m lucky enough to be able to read books in a couple of languages other than English, but there is so much out there that doesn’t get translated and that I can’t read. Luckily, there are a few independent publishers who are exploring cultures which have hitherto been closed to me: Charco Press with Latin American literature, Istros Books (now merged with Peter Owen) with trans-Danubian countries and the Balkans, Pushkin Press with the Russians (and others), Strangers Press for Japanese literature (which I’d now struggle to read in the original – perhaps in a bilingual edition?) and Seagull Books for pretty much everything else, especially its African and Arabic lists.

For those books below, they fall into what my friend Emma from Book Around the Corner classifies as a ‘translation tragedy’ category – or ‘what a shame that this hasn’t been translated, what are you waiting for?’ So here are my favourite reads of 2017 which deserve to find a publisher in the English-speaking world soon:

Marcus Malte

Marcus Malte: Les harmoniques

Crime fiction with a difference, a strong musical element, a playful use of language and a way of blending farce and strong emotions which reminds me of Antti Tuomainen’s latest book. Malte is a poet with a plot. (France)

Bogdan Teodorescu: Spada

Slightly biased here because of the Romanian background, but this is a thought-provoking book about political intrigue, mass manipulation via the media and how easy it is to create a sense of ‘perfidious other’ at the national level. (Romania)

Thomas Willmann: Das finstere Tal

Socialist realism meets rural noir and brooding Western – a book that sounds grim in description but is rather splendid in execution, if slightly predictable. (Germany)

Alice Rivaz

Alice Rivaz: Sans alcool

An absolute pitch-perfect mastery of the inner and outer dialogues between couples or the self-delusion of individuals: poignant and unforgettable. (Switzerland)

 

 

Epic Fiction: The Great War by Aleksandar Gatalica

You don’t often get to see the First World War from the Balkan perspective, so Istros Books‘ publication of this monumental doorstopper of a novel, translated from the Serbian by Will Firth, deserves a round of applause. I was sent this book for review at Necessary Fiction quite a while ago, but to my shame I never got around to it. I have now come across my rather impressionistic review notes and am at least publishing them on my blog (far smaller fry, I do realise), because I can’t do much editing or updating directly online at the moment, but I can just about cut and paste a Word document (it only takes about an hour or two, which is far too long for such a simple process).

Not everyone had been a hero. Not everyone kept quiet.

A word of warning to all readers expecting a concise picture of life during WW1: this is a much longer and more ambitious book, a broad canvas aiming to cover all the diversity of experience of the First World War. It would be wrong to call it a collection of short stories or vignettes either, as characters and stories emerge, repeat with variations, are built upon and thus swell into a musical theme within an orchestra that for the most part remains tuneful. To continue with the metaphor, we find just the occasional cacophonous confusion.

We encounter here a  vast array of characters of all nationalities, from all walks of life, all occupations, both genders, all ages. Some of the characters are historical, although their stories have more than a touch of the apocryphal and fantastical. You will come across Archduke Franz-Ferdinand and his wife having a conversation in the mortuary after their assassination; Jean Cocteau gorging himself with buckshot so that he will attain the minimum weight to enlist in the army; even Rasputin and Lance Corporal Hitler make an appearance. But it is predominantly the story of ordinary folk –  hustlers, con men, pimps, soldiers, volunteers for the Serbia Blue Cross, tradesmen in Istanbul  – and their more fortunate or wealthy peers: opera singers, society beauties, students, industrialists, doctors.

Portrait of the author, from his website.
Portrait of the author, from his website.

An aura of doom and the burden of history permeate this work, lightened every now and then with odd anecdotes, touches of humour, human-interest stories.  The initial conviction that ‘one shot, one shout and one charge would resolve everything’ gradually gives way to incompetence of the military commanders, failures of the Red Cross, disillusionment of ordinary soldiers and civilians.

Here are a few scenes which particularly stuck to my mind:

Major Miyushkovich’s beloved wife Ruzha abandons him on the first day of war. He dies heroically in battle.

Russian muzhik soldiers severely wounded, given painkillers in hospital, suddenly start speaking German, discoursing on erudite topics. However, the author points out that ‘men groaned and died in the same language – in the east and in the west’.

A young Polish student and a girl dying of tuberculosis find love and refuge, squatting in a Parisian apartment whose owners have fled . They scavenge for food and make love like the last people on earth. They have one week of happiness before death and the military strike them down.

Fritz Krupp, wannabe artist with insufficient talent (shades of later world wars there?, despises Picasso and the others who have made a creative home in Paris. So he becomes a bomber pilot, keen to bomb Montmartre and Montparnasse into oblivion.

The humour and lightness of the early anecdotes give way to descriptions of the relentless drudgery, harsh winters, typhus epidemics of later years. There are grotesque touches like the horse with dogs in his belly, being fed them with minced meat from dead comrades (a form of horse cannibalism, which is shocking but sadly all to believable).

Fritz Haber is a German chemist who produces poison gas to better serve his country (yes, he has bought into all that ideological discourse). A little cloud of chlorine from Ypres mounts up and travels all the way to Karlsruhe and kills his wife Clara, who was opposed to his using science to bring about death.

French edition of the novel.

Not even the end of the war holds much hope, because, as we now know, the lessons were not learnt from its unclear, messy ending. And then the Spanish Flu in its immediate aftermath: the smallest and most sinister anti-hero of this novel, who does not distinguish good from evil, who attacks with abandon.

A book to dip into and read over a longer period of time, rather than straight through from cover to cover, it provides an alternative picture to the First World War, quite different from the dominant Anglo-French interpretation. A necessary read, indeed!