Twenty-five years ago I went to Germany for fieldwork during my Ph.D. I was based in a small university town Marburg, and very soon I discovered there were two other Romanian girls studying there. One of them became a very good friend: we were both passionate about literature (both German and English) and were both in very new, very long-distance relationships that we weren’t entirely sure about. I had concerns about my boyfriend’s character, while she was more concerned about the age difference (she was three years older than him). We both ended up marrying our sweethearts: my fears were well founded, hers not at all.
Csaba was Romanian of Hungarian origin. He ended up embarking on business studies in Marburg himself, so as to be with my friend, although he spoke hardly any German at the time. He had been an elite athlete previously and we would go running in the woods together, and he also introduced me to Tai Chi. He was full of energy and humour, utterly devoted to my friend, sending her tapes with his voice whispering sweet nothings in her ear whenever they were apart.
They returned to Romania after their studies, had children about the same time as I did. I could think of no better people to ask to be godparents to my second son, even though I knew we were going to be hundreds of miles away.
Whenever we went to Romania, we visited them and our boys became good friends, despite the mix of five languages and cultures that they were experiencing between them.
Their older son graduated from secondary school this year, just like mine did, and planned to study medicine. They were justifiably proud of him, and trying to decide if he should study in Romania or Germany.
Early this morning, my friend sent me a message that Csaba died of Covid. It is hard to believe that a man like this, the heart and soul of every party, but also the most thoughtful and loving husband, father, godfather and friend, could just be snuffed out like that. All the adventures and visits and joint ventures we had planned… All the advice and serenity that his sons will never get a chance to experience… All the love and support that my friend is now left without…
I have no words. Other than: make the most of your life and your friendships.
If not, why, then this parting was well made. (Julius Caesar)
This Sunday we had to say goodbye to our dear Barney, the most sweet-natured and dignified of elderly gentlemen cats. I knew our time together might not be very long, but he seemed so alert, so lively, that we had hoped to get a few years at least. Sadly, it was not to be.
He was diagnosed with diabetes in August, and didn’t seem to mind the injections I was giving him twice daily. But then he stopped eating, his fur started getting scraggly, his urinary tract infection just wouldn’t go away. I was taking him to the vet every few days, adjusting his dosage, having him checked out, but towards the end of last week he barely had the energy to do anything other than sit under his favourite bush in the garden. Even Zoe, who has not been his greatest fan, was gentle towards him in his last few days.
It only takes a few seconds to fall in love, they say, and I fell in love with Barney’s sweet expression as soon as I saw it on Twitter. But it takes months and years to get to really know someone – and I wish we’d had that time to get to know each other fully. However, this is what we found out about him during the six months we had together.
He was a Zen master. Every couple of days, Zoe would make a run at him, and he never retaliated, merely lifted his paw on occasion in the gesture of a benign and wise Buddha.
He was a great helper for any cook. He would follow my every move in the kitchen with bright, intelligent eyes, as if asking: ‘What else can I do?’ (He would also search the floor very thoroughly for any fallen pieces of food.)
He didn’t come upstairs at all until the very last week before he got really ill. He had a deep miaow which he learnt to use most expressively when he wanted to be let out or some attention.
He was one of life’s natural philosophers. He loved sitting in the garden, breathing in the fresh air, stretching out in the shade.
He was a gentle giant, tall and thin, with big, manly back legs. He had a loping gait and was extremely agile for his age.
His favourite spots were: just in front of the fridge door or on the back of the sofa when we were all watching TV. Or sleeping on the sofa when we all wanted to sit on it.
He was extremely good at guilting you into giving him extra treats (although we desisted because of his health problems).
He had his favourite human: my younger son, who was 15, just like him.
He was not a lap cat, which made it all the more special when he honoured me with his presence.
He had the most beautiful, profound eyes, a gaze that you could just drown in.
The house is just not the same without his quiet presence.
You may think it’s shallow to judge books by the author pictures. Yes, it is, and, luckily for most authors (myself included), I don’t. Until I come across two women writers who seem to have talent, looks and youth all on their side. Furthermore, they each live about an hour’s drive away from me. Let’s hope that there’s something in the local water – to improve my talent too, as age and beauty are beyond repair…
Sophie Divry: Quand le diable sortit de la salle de bain (When the Devil Came Out of the Bathroom)
Sophie Divry has caught the imagination of the English-speaking reading public too, with a translation of her first book ‘The Library of Unrequited Love’. That was a charming story of a lovelorn librarian and her passion for books and the arts more generally.
This is her fourth novel, as yet untranslated in English, and the story seems to be more anchored in present-day reality. And a drab reality it is too: we hear of the trials and tribulations of an educated young jobseeker (also called Sophie) in Lyon, who is trying to write a book and make ends meet by doing little odd jobs which pay late, and then cause her unemployment benefit to be stopped temporarily. Meanwhile, she tries to make the right (i.e. filling) choices in the supermarket when all she has left is 17.70 euros, sends off job applications, fills in forms, goes to the jobcentre, sells off her toaster and her books, fends off cold callers and tries to reason with bureaucrats.
Of course, this being Divry, the realism is tempered with some surreal touches. Sophie has conversations with Lorchus, her personal demon and the devil of the title, who tries to encourage her to steal or become a drug dealer or attack someone to rob them.
You need to make a choice, my dear. You’re either on the side of the winners, always emerging victorious, or else on the side of bacteria, crying over every bill and moulding away a little every day. Rethink your values. Free yourself. Honesty, sharing, sobriety – that’s all chicken poop. Are you going to listen to your Mum all your life? [my translation]
Meanwhile, her large family in the south of France are less than helpful (not that she wants to confide in them about her troubles), nor is her friend Hector, who is obsessed with the pursuit of the unattainable Belinda. Nothing much happens really: we just follow Sophie’s daily life, her anxieties, her frequently very funny rants about contemporary French society and its failings.
There is a faint glimmer of Virginie Despentes in Divry, not just because of the similarities in subject matter. Divry has less realism and more of a touch of Russian fantasy (I was thinking of Bulgakov throughout). I liked the way the characters intervened, demanded to play a bigger part, how the devil draws provocative pictures in the book, how she tries to get her revenge on him and her friend Hector. There is a tongue-in-cheek postmodern satire here which is rather delightful.
However, I found the writing style annoying at times: too much of an essay or a personal rant. The long enumerations – of how her family talks, what they eat, the men she doesn’t like, the list of anxieties in the supermarket – can be an amusing device and very effective the first time it is used, but when it’s constantly repeated throughout the book, it becomes just a lazy technique. The end was very abrupt and unsatisfactory as well, and the bonus material at the end did nothing to remedy that. However, there was something about the mix of candid depiction of poverty and rampant imagination which did appeal to me. I will be reading more of this author (I still haven’t read her first book, and have heard good things about La condition pavillonaire), and I am sure she will get better and better.
Michelle Bailat-Jones: Fog Island Mountain
One writer who already seems at the height of her powers is Michelle. Disclosure moment here: I know Michelle personally, and that usually puts me in a bit of a quandary. Will I lose a friend if I don’t ‘love’ the book? How can I be honest about a book for other future readers without offending a friend by not giving them five stars? And if I gush, will people think I am biased and disregard my review?
Well, all I can say is that this debut novel made me cry. It did help that I was in Japan in a typhoon at the time – and the story is set in Japan just before and during a great storm. But it’s a moving and beautifully-written story no matter where or when you read it.
South African expat Alec has been living in a small town in the fog-shrouded mountains on the southernmost tip of Kyūshū for several decades. He is diagnosed with terminal cancer and this is in fact the story of how each member of his family – and he himself – cope with the news. Alec’s devoted Japanese wife Kanae is normally ‘a woman who keeps her promises’, but she has an unexpectedly visceral and panicked reaction to her husband’s illness. He ‘is going to leave her behind’, she repeats to herself, and her rage and denial make her run away and behave in uncharacteristic ways, which she later regrets. Some readers complain that Kanae is thoroughly selfish and unlikeable, but grief strikes each one of us in such extreme ways. Only people with no compassion or imagination can condemn her (even though I feel very sorry for Alec).
Then Alec sneaks out of the hospital and everyone fears the worst: that he has gone off to commit suicide. With a tropical storm ready to hit the island, Kanae and Alec mount a desperate search for each other, scanning their memories and searching out their favourite spots, all the places that have hidden meaning for them, always just narrowly missing each other. Along the way, they remember their great love, a love from which their children have sometimes felt excluded, and find the inner strength – individually and as a couple – to cope with the diagnosis and its inevitable outcome.
…he knows this frightened face of hers, the one she wore when her children got hurt, when Megumi announced she was pregnant and alone… and yes, he remembers this same face, too, for their period of courting when it would sneak into their more serious conversations, when it surprised them both in a moment of happiness, and he is nodding at her now, able to look at her again, because forever is such a terrifying thing, but they have already managed one forever and they have done just fine with it.
Readers who do not like the use of the present tense or long sentences, with many subordinate clauses, will struggle perhaps at the outset of this book. But if you treat it as a prose-poem and savour each skilfully constructed phrase, you have to admire how the length and rhythm of the sentence acts both as an accelerator and a brake at different times in the narrative. I was particularly attracted by the additional POV, the neutral observer if you like, who comments on the events with the ease and perspective of an ominiscient narrator (but in a less annoyingly knowing way). This is a neighbour, Kitauchi-san, who seems to have a special relationship with animals, rescuing trapped and wounded creatures in the wild. She has a symbiotic relationship with a fox, which brings to mind not only the ‘taming of the fox’ in The Little Prince but also the ‘kitsune’ or fox spirits of Japanese legends. In Japan foxes often take on female forms and prove themselves to be wise and faithful guardians of their chosen families, although there is also a more malevolent association with evil spirits too. This ambiguity of animal symbolism, together with the fog and menacing storm, serves the story well and creates the perfect backdrop for much emotional drama.
You may argue that the subject matter has been done before, but that’s not the point. It would be far too easy to resort to big emotional fanfare and melodrama with this kind of story, but the author manages to contain it all with the precision of Japanese painting or a tea ceremony, in which each restrained gesture stands in for so much more. Yet I defy anyone not to have tears in their eyes as they read that last scene in the book. I won’t quote from it, as it needs to be read in its entirety for the full effect to trickle through you. Just stunning!
It’s typical of my reading: I have a higgledy-piggledy collection of books on my night-table, get distracted by someone’s urgent recommendation, read with a fine disregard for the original plan… and nevertheless find a pattern. This time, it’s about a parent learning to deal with the loss of a much-loved only child and finding ways of grieving and coping.
The first book is Kate Hamer’s ‘The Girl in the Red Coat’, published by Faber and Faber today. You know how I’ve been objecting to ‘Girl’ titles, especially when they refer to mature women? Well, in this case it is not just annoying marketing to cash in on the ‘Gone Girl’ fever (with echoes of ‘Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ thrown in for good measure). In this case, it is justified: the girl is just eight years old. Her name is Carmel and she is the daughter of Beth, a woman who is still trying to come to terms with single motherhood and her husband’s leaving her for another woman. Carmel and her mother have a very close relationship, but there is something slightly odd about Carmel’s dreaminess, her other-worldly charm and ability to understand what other people are feeling. She sometimes blurts out funny little statements, mature beyond her age, which cast a chill on any mother’s heart. Hamer is excellent at playing on our most primitive fears as a parent, on our fierce protective instincts:
‘You realise, Mum, that I won’t always be with you,’ she said, her voice small and breathy in the fading light.
Maybe my heart should have frozen then. Maybe I should have turned and gathered her up and taken her home. Kept her shut away in a fortress or a tower. Locked with a golden key that I would swallow, so my stomach would have to be cut open before she could be found. But of course I thought it meant nothing, nothing at all.
Carmel has a tendency to fall into a daydream and wander off. Very near the start of the book, Beth loses her in a maze, so we are not surprised when the mother becomes overly anxious about letting the girl out of her sight. Luckily, the little girl likes red things, so when they go to a local storytelling festival, her mother is reassured that she can easily pick her daughter out in the crowd by her bright red coat. Unfortunately, so can others and very soon Beth’s worst fears are realised: Carmel disappears and is tricked into believing that she is not being kidnapped. Beth has to cope with her overwhelming sense of grief and guilt, her ex-husband’s accusations of not having looked after their daughter properly, the endless not knowing.
This is being marketed as a thriller, but, despite the ‘will they won’t they find the child’ element, the focus of the story is neither on the police investigation nor on actual crimes. The timeframe is much longer than the one to which crime fiction readers may be accustomed – a matter of years rather than days. This is very much a book about the process of grieving, coming to terms with all that has been lost and trying to find a reason to go on. We alternate between the points of view of Beth and Carmel and see how they both fight to keep hold of their identity and their memories of each other. They each find support and friendship in the most unlikely of places.
Written in a very oral, often breathless style, liberally sprinkled with lyrical passages, it’s a book you have to surrender to and just go with the flow. It starts out as a familiar British domestic thriller, and then morphs into a tale of poverty, miracle healings, deceit and a need to believe which seems to come out straight out of ‘True Detective’. Child narrators can be tricky to handle, but on the whole Carmel’s voice rings true: she is, after all, a very precocious eight-year-old. It is Beth, however, who is the most moving, whom I can identify with, and she has pushed through her pain to become a philosopher and a poet:
I have a strange image of the two of us. That all these years we were tiny insects and the world was made of a huge beast – some kind of cattle. That we roamed and roamed across its back and even climbed up, one on the tip of each horn, and from there we tried to wave to each other. But being tiny we could not see, and the chasm was too great, and there wasn’t anything that could bridge that gap.
In the second book, Hubert Mingarelli’s ‘La route de Beit Zera’ (my translation: ‘The Road to Beit Zera’), set in present-day Israel, Stepan has lost his son Yankel because of a shooting at a border crossing into Palestine. He knows exactly where his son has fled to: New Zealand, and he writes to him every day, ruining his eyesight to make little boxes that he sells for a pittance, trying to save up enough money to visit his son. His only companion is his faithful dog, now grown old and incontinent, although he receives occasional visits from his old friend Samuelson, who used to be a border guard like him, and therefore understands the mix of shame, fear and compassion of his old life. Israeli novels tend to avoid describing the Arab-Israeli conflict and mutual distrust, and it could be argued that Mingarelli is French and therefore not able to understand the complexity of the situation, but it seems to me he describes those ambiguous feelings very well:
…every night he’d fall asleep in the company of all those that he’d stopped and searched, on the street, at the barriers. He took with him in his sleep their empty gaze, disguising their hatred. And when he woke up, he was afraid of all these men and hated them just as much as they hated him. This fear grew, night after night, but whenever he had to search an Arab who was the same age as his father, he tried to impress upon him, with his hands, that he had no wish to humiliate him, and in patting him all along the body as cautiously as possible, he expected some kind of gesture, something impossible, a small flicker of gratitude in his eyes. But his gaze remained resolutely empty and later, in his sleep, turned murderous and full of hatred.
A young Arab boy comes into Stepan’s life. He appears wordlessly from the edge of the forest and forms a deep bond with Stepan’s dog, although the two of them barely exchange any words. He comes and slips away at night, doesn’t reappear for days, but gradually Stepan starts to look forward to his visits. They are united in their suffering as they watch the decline of the dog, a decline they are powerless to stop. Perhaps the boy or the dog or both represent Stepan’s son, or maybe they are ways in which he can expiate his past.
Mingarelli has endless compassion for each one of his characters: we enter the cheerful world of the Palestinian man who is accidentally shot, as he returns from work, trying to find a name for his soon-to-be-born son; we see how Samuelson’s drunken stupor momentarily relieves his pain; towards the end of the book, we even become acquainted with the boy’s mother, who trembles with fear every time her son goes away she knows not where, yet learns not to ask questions; and, of course, the nameless dog, who can’t quite gambol through the forest anymore to enjoy her greatest pleasure in life: drinking water from the pools formed at the roots of trees.
Sadly, Mingarelli’s book is currently only available in French. His deceptively brief yet very moving novellas are ripe for translation, however, and I don’t just say that because he is practically a neighbour of mine, living in a tiny hamlet in the French Alps. If you do want to try him in English, Portobello Books published ‘A Meal in Winter’ (transl. Sam Taylor) in 2013.
I am always late for the event (not even elegantly late, but REALLY late), but do join us over at dVerse Poets Pub for the Open Link Night. Today it’s all about the poetry of the everyday, the mundane, the meretricious…
‘Awkward,’ he said,
dashing out of her bedroom and into her brain.
Forever to measure the yokels who followed,
the husband found wanting,
the wood left entangled,
the burbling of Jabberwocks
that filtered and flitted,
never to be caught again.
So they lived and soldiered on,
grim lines they furrowed,
Not the harmonious calm of unspoken shared thoughts