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:
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)
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)
It was Catherine from the wonderful Blog du Polar de Velda (if you read French and like crime fiction, this site comes highly recommended) who introduced me to author Marcus Malte in Lyon four years ago. I read two or three of his books (none of which have been translated into English yet) and found them all very different from each other, quite dark, highly imaginative and experimental.
In the meantime, he has won the prestigious Prix Femina with his novel Le garçon (which I haven’t read yet, but you can read Emma’s review), so here’s hoping at least that will get translated. However, in Lyon this year, I picked up one of his earlier books, Les harmoniques, which makes full use of his love of music, especially jazz. Malte is frequently described as a ‘noir’ author, but this book had moments of hilarious fun, almost farce-like, which surprised and enchanted me. Moreover, it did nothing to detract from the rather serious subject matter, proving that it’s not always grim and tortuous which is memorable or worthy. (Oscar selection committee, take note! How could you ignore ‘Hidden Figures’ so badly?)
The subtitle of the book is Beau Danube Blues (Beautiful Danube Blues) and this is a hint of the European tragedy that lies at its heart. It starts off with a chapter that resembles jazz improvisation, with two people talking (we have no idea who they are at first), and musical interludes between their words.
‘Believe it or not, there was a time when I thought I was immortal. But I fear that has gone. For good.’
‘That’s called wisdom.’
‘I’d rather call that giving up.
‘Wisdom includes giving up.’
This might seem like a pretentious and unnecessarily difficult way to hook a reader into a novel, but if you move on to the next chapters, you realise it gives you a good insight into the two main characters: Mister and Bob.
Mister is a jazz pianist and one of his favourite fans, beautiful young Vera, has just been murdered and burnt alive. The police has arrested two suspects, who have confessed to the crime, but Mister is convinced there is more to it than meets the eye.
Bob is his friend and favourite taxi driver, a mighty unusual one, former philosophy professor, prone to enigmatic quotations and only occasionally charging his clients. Together, they set out to discover the truth about Vera’s death. In due course, they discover more about her life: she came to France to study theatre, but she was originally from the Balkans, from the Croatian town of Vukovar, where in 1991 an 87 day siege was followed by a whole-scale destruction and ethnic cleansing of the town by the Serbian army. But what could this long-gone war have to do with her present-day murder?
We never get to see Vera herself, she is dead at the outset of the novel, but we do see her through other people’s eyes and through short, poetic chapters, very much like musical interludes, which seem to delve into her mind, although they are in the third person:
This war which she escaped but which she carried everywhere with her. In her head. Secretly. Even in the most tender moments.
They come across a series of paintings of Vera in an art gallery and decide to visit the artist Josef Kristi, a strange, reclusive character, to find out more about the relationship between Kristi and the model. Although the artist tells them a little about Vera’s past, they don’t quite believe he is not involved in her death, so they decide to do some very amateurish surveillance. What follows is a very funny scene, where they end up in the middle of a field of beetroots (or maybe turnips or potatoes or pumpkins, they are not quite sure), just opposite the Kristi house. Mister fears they are too conspicuous, but Bob says they can always claim that they are waiting for a pick-up truck. And then a farmer passes by and stops to see what these incompetent investigators are up to… I was giggling all the way through this scene.
There are serious and dangerous moments too: they get involved with nasty and brutal people, some of them in positions of power, and make some unlikely allies – a blind, elderly accordeon-player and a young, tone-deaf singer. While this is not a plot-driven book, the build-up of tension was working well until about the last 100 pages, when it all descends into a lengthy explanation and is wrapped up too quickly, as if the author had lost interest.
But the crime element is not the main reason to read this book: it is a wonderful piece of rhythmic and musical writing, with many passages designed to be read out loud (as the author did, with musical accompaniment, in Lyon. You can read Emma’s thoughts about the event here). It is a melancholy look at all the ‘forgotten’ towns and victims, and a reminder that the consequences of war rage on long after the conflict is officially over. It will not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I am always curious to see what Marcus Malte writes next: he is most certainly not an author to be pigeon-holed.
This fits in well with the #EU27Project, since it is written by a French writer, deals with a recent conflict in Croatia and reminds us of the purpose of the EU.
WWW Wednesday is a meme hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words. It’s open for anyone to join in and is a great way to share what you’ve been reading! All you have to do is answer three questions and share a link to your blog in the comments section of Sam’s blog.
Marcus Malte: Les harmoniques (not yet translated into English)
Vera has been murdered, burnt alive. Mister, the pianist, loved her, as much as she loved his music, so he needs to know who killed her and why. With his friend Bob, a philosophical, multilingual cab driver, he sets out to search, interrogate, sniff out bit by bit Vera’s earlier life, beyond some distant shore on the river Danube, to corpse-strewn Balkanic regions.
We met Marcus Malte in Lyon and he recommended this book as being the one where his love for music is most obvious. He has also created a concert around it, which you can listen to here.
Two books for review on Crime Fiction Lover (the reviews will be up very soon):
I used to love the Falco series set in Ancient Rome, but this is the first in the Flavia Albia series which I have read. You can’t help but see some political parallels to the present-day with a totalitarian, paranoid ruler and the fear of an Eastern Empire taking over…
Kjell Ola Dahl: Faithless, transl. Don Bartlett (Orenda Books, coming out 8th April)
When the body of a woman turns up in a dumpster, scalded and wrapped in plastic, Inspector Frank Frølich is shocked to discover that he knows her—and their recent meetings may hold the clue to her murder. As he begins to look deeper into the tragic events surrounding her death, Frølich’s colleague Gunnarstranda finds another body, and things take a more sinister turn. With a cold case involving the murder of a young girl in northern Norway casting a shadow, and an unsettling number of coincidences clouding the plot, Frølich is forced to look into his own past to find the answers—and the killer—before he strikes again.
Fiona Melrose: Midwinter
Father and Son, Landyn and Vale Midwinter, are men of the land. Suffolk farmers. Times are hard and they struggle to sustain their property, their livelihood and their heritage in the face of competition from big business.
But an even bigger, more brutal fight is brewing: a fight between each other, about the horrible death of Cecelia, beloved wife and mother, in Zambia ten years earlier. A past they have both refused to confront until now.
Bogdan Teodorescu: Spada (not yet translated into English, transl. in French by Jean-Louis Courriol)
A little tramp is found with his throat slit in the streets of Bucharest. A second and a third victim are assassinated with the same deadly weapon and it becomes clear that there is a serial killer on the loose in the Romanian capital. His victims all have two things in common: they are Roma (gypsies) and all have a criminal record. A powerful political thriller, indictment of mass media, political parties and slogans, this is a true Balkanic Borgen.
Have you read any of these or do any of them tempt you?
I’ve been following Jacqui’s recent deep-digging into her TBR pile with interest. Her latest blog post, reflecting on the experience of her #TBR20 challenge, was particularly enticing. Writer Eva Stalker launched the idea, and some of my blogging friends, such as Emma and Max, have also been persuaded to join in. So I plan to follow suit, while allowing some wriggle room for those inevitable review copies.
The principle is very simple. With so many books double and triple stacked on my shelves (not to mention stashed away on my e-reader), I really need to stop collecting and start reading some of them. So I plan to reduce the pile by at least 20, for however long it takes, and during this period I will refrain from buying any new books (other than those I am sent for urgent reviewing purposes). You are probably laughing, remembering how disastrous my TBR Double Dare challenge ended up… But this feels more manageable – or perhaps it’s just the right time of year to be doing it.
I do have an initial list of 20 in mind, but will allow myself to be open to the fickleness of moods and interests. I also want to incorporate a good selection of ebooks and real books, French and German books, poetry and non-fiction, crime and translated fiction etc. My Global Reading Challenge seems to be suffering a little here, so I may have to make some changes. I will probably need to do a serious cull of my ebooks at some point in addition to this.
So here are my first thoughts on the topic (the ones marked with C denote crime fiction titles, W is for woman writer)
1) Books in French:
All about the challenges and disappointments of everyday life in modern France – quite a contrast to the more luscious depiction of France in fiction written by foreigners.
Marcus Malte: Cannisses – small-town residential area C
Jérémie Guez: Paris la nuit – the alienated youngsters of the Parisian balieues C
Emmanuel Grand: Terminus Belz – Ukrainian refugee in Breton village, aiming to cross over to Britain C
Fouad Laroui: L’etrange affaire du pantalon de Dassoukine – Morocco meets France in this collection of bittersweet and often very funny short stories
Dominique Sylvain: Ombres et soleil – finally, a woman writer too! The world of international corporations, dirty money and arms trade – plus the charming humour of the detecting duo Lola and Ingrid. C W
2) Books in German:
Jakob Arjouni: Ein Mann, ein Mord – third case for Kayankaya, the Turkish-born detective with a very Frankfurt attitude C
Alex Capus: Mein Nachbar Urs – stories from small-town Switzerland
Judith Schalansky: Der Hals der Giraffe – the dying of the light in East Germany, a biology teacher who proves to be the last of her species W
Stefanie de Velasco: Tigermilch – this wasn’t much liked by the IFFP shadow jury, but I was attracted by its Berlin setting and thought it could be the Christiane F. for the new generation W
Friederike Schmöe: Fliehganzleis – 2nd case for ghostwriter Kea Laverde: I’ve read others in the series and this one is again about East vs. West Germany and some traumatic historical events C W
3) Books on ereader
Ever Yours – The Letters of Vincent van Gogh – one of my favourite painters, need I say more?
Hadrien Laroche: Orphans – an allegorical tale
John Enright: Blood Jungle Ballet – the return of detective Apelu Soifa and his fight against crime on Samoa C
Sara Novic: Girl at War – child survivor of Yugoslav war returns to Zagreb ten years later W
Ansel Elkins: Blue Yodel – debut collection of poetry, winner of the 2014 Yale Series of the Younger Poets prize W
Max Blecher: Scarred Hearts – Romanian writer who died of tuberculosis of the spine at the age of 29 in 1938 (perhaps fortunately so, since he was Jewish)
Sergei Dovlatov: Pushkin Hills – shortlisted for the Best Translated Book Award this year, but written back in 1983, it’s all about Mother Russia, the artist’s life and living under censorship
Kishwar Desai: Witness the Night – the first in the Simran Singh series and always very topical about controversial subjects in India C W
Ariel Gore: Atlas of the Human Heart – a younger person’s version of ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ (which I didn’t like much), a teenager’s journey of self-discovery and running away from America W
Wendy Cope: The Funny Side – 101 Humorous Poems (selected and introduced by Cope) W
Have you read any of these? Are there any you would particularly recommend starting with, or should I swap some over for something else? (They do strike me, on the whole, as a rather sombre pile of books).
The other idea that Jacqui planted into my head was to have a bit of a rereading challenge. I carry my favourite books with me in every place I’ve ever lived in and I look up certain pages, but I never get a chance anymore to reread them properly. (Where, oh where are the days when I used to reread all of the novels of Virginia Woolf and Jane Austen every year or two?) So who would like to join me and Jacqui on a #reread challenge? Perhaps of 6 books in a year, roughly one every 2 months? Would that be feasible?
Here are some instant favourites that spring to mind: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘Tender Is the Night’; Virginia Woolf’s ‘Between the Acts’ (her last novel); Jean Rhys’ ‘After Leaving Mr Mackenzie’; Muriel Spark’s ‘Loitering with Intent’ and Tillie Olsen’s brilliant collection of essays about life getting in the way of creating ‘Silences’. What would you reread, if you could and would?
In this, my final (and longest) instalment in Lyon Quais du Polar series of posts, I will finally share with you some of the witty or memorable conversations I heard during the panel debates (and while waiting in the queues).
Panel 1: Freedom of movement, integration and new borders in crime fiction: Liad Shoham, Emmanuel Grand, Stuart Neville and Lauren Beukes
For all of these readers, the theme of frontiers/borders was not just random or a secondary consideration, but a deliberate choice. Whether we are talking the permeable borders within Europe and how that gives free rein to criminal gangs to ply their trade (Neville and Grand), the paradox of a country like Israel, built by immigrants, trying to deal with the new exodus from Eritrea (Shoham) or the blurring of divisions between the real world and social media (in Lauren Beukes’ dystopian novels set in the near-future), it seems that writers feel the urge to write about things that make them angry. The curtailing of liberties thanks to myths that our governments tell us (like the war on terror), the over-simplification of social problems (immigrants are the ones to blame) and creation of a new kind of slavery are all controversial themes which these authors felt compelled to present through personal stories. A novel cannot offer solutions to these issues, but it can highlight them through memorable characters and their realities.
Session 2: Recording for radio/ Interview with George Pelecanos
Talking about his latest creation, part-time investigator and Iraqui war veteran Spero Lucas: ‘I’ve gone on record as saying that the Iraqi war was not just and not necessary, but I wanted to let my characters speak for themselves. Spero is much ambiguous, reflecting what I heard from many vets: we were there to kill enemies and protect our brother and sister soldiers, not to liberate the Iraqi people or spread democracy. All that veterans want after the war is to return to normalcy, to the life they had before, rather than applause, medals and gratitude of the people.’
About Washington DC: ‘I never wanted to write about the government or federal city, I always wanted to talk about the real Washingtonians who have been there for generations. The city has changed so much in the last ten years: the black Southern city has been lost, and the whole of it will turn into Georgetown soon. I try not to be nostalgic. There’s nothing worse than middle-aged white nostalgia, and it is true that crime rates have gone down and there are more jobs than before. But the spirit of the place has changed, it’s become sanitised.’
About writing: ‘People tell you life is short, but it’s not. It’s long. When I was Spero Lucas’ age (29-30), I was working in restaurant kitchens. I just wanted to write a book to prove I could do it. But make no mistake: writing is a job, writers need to work all the time. It’s not something you do cos you’re lazy. If you’re lazy, you won’t make it as a writer. What does the future hold for me? Still ten years or so of script-writing, I hope, and then more books till I die. There’s only one thing that scares me more than death, and that’s retirement.’
Panel 3: Are scriptwriters the new novelists? (George Pelecanos – The Wire, Treme; Anne Landois – Engrenages or Spiral)
Both scriptwriters agreed that the new passion for quality TV series has put the writer back at the centre of things, even though the writing is much more collaborative. Fascinating contrasts emerged between French and American styles of approaching TV series, despite the fact that Anne admitted she was hugely indebted to The Wire for her approach to Spiral. ‘Time is money’ in the US means that there is not much time for writing up-front, and a lot of changes are made on the go. There is no time to be strategic and there was no awareness that they were writing a series which would get so much acclaim. There was no big picture, they were just working inch by inch, and if they were told to write another ‘Wire’ now, it wouldn’t be possible. French TV traditionally goes for longer 90 minute episodes, so Spiral was breaking new ground with shorter episode format, but they show two episodes at once per week, so that requires much more advance writing. Writers typically spend about 2 years planning the scripts before the director comes in (which is a huge innovation in itself, as most French cinema and TV is still very much director-led). Also, Spiral was commissioned by a private channel Canal +: since viewers are paying for it, they also have high expectations for quality of its programming.
Panel 4: Dancing Machine: Music and Crime Fiction
What music do they listen to when writing? Cathi Unsworth – Barry Adamson , Ace Atkins – blues, country and jazz, George Pelecanos – film soundtracks (instrumental, so words don’t clash with his own), Marcus Malte – traditional jazz, Paul Colize – huge rock fan but needs silence to create. However, they all agreed that music is important not just because they mention it frequently in their books, but in the way they use rhythms and sounds, even in the structure of the books themselves. Each novel has a specific tone, a certain aesthetic which fits well with a certain type of music, but we respond to music instinctively, even without understanding the meaning. How can we convey that emotion with words in novels?
Session 5: James Ellroy (with his French editor and translator)
Ellroy is a showman and he did not disappoint, with his tongue-in-cheek style and provocative statements. Yet he knows how to be a charmer: he said he was very grateful to the French people for raising him to icon status. Although he is a bestseller in many countries, his book sales are highest in France, perhaps because the French invented the term ‘noir’. Yet he is still obsessed with the crazy conjunction of men and women in LA and in the US, he is still full of respect andlove for the American idiom, he loves listening to the crazy shit of his fellow countrymen/women. He cannot write about anywhere else. He is currently working on his second tetralogy set in LA (to complement the LA Quartet and Underworld USA trilogy), using many of the same characters, but set earlier, during the attack on Pearl Harbour and the Second World War. How does he explain his productivity? Go to bed early, wake up early, lots of coffee, two bouts of work and two of sleeping per day, but also his Calvinistic work ethic. Oh, and ‘my mother always said I was born for the pulpit – and my pulpit is writing.’
By the Water-Cooler
Despite my mobile-phone-less state in Lyon, I was miraculously and luckily found by my friend Catherine from Le Blog du Polar du Velda. One of the most informed and widely read crime fiction bloggers in France, she has interviewed Ian Rankin, PD James, Denise Mina, William Ryan, as well as the best up-and-coming French authors.
Through her, I had the pleasure of meeting Mireille from Polardeuse , who is equally fluent in English and can broaden your knowledge of French crime fiction. When I asked them about the ‘next big thing’, a secret recommendation that they might have, they both suggested Petite Louve by Marie Van Moere – a debut novel about rape, violence and vengeance in Corsica.
Last but not least, the two ladies above also introduced me to Anne, who had come all the way from the UK to attend the festival. In some ways, she is the most admirable of all of us, for she doesn’t blog or write fiction herself. She has no ‘professional’ interest in crime fiction, but attends purely out of love for books and the craft of writing, or, as Virginia Woolf would put it, she is ‘The Common Reader’ (which is not that common at all…).
One final impression: Although I have heard some literary agents and publishers talk with some disdain about ‘uninformed and unprofessional’ reviews by book bloggers, all the authors I met were unfailingly polite and friendly with us. I think they are already a step ahead in their awareness of the buzz that can be generated via word of mouth and social media. And that perhaps people who are not part of the system can be more honest in their opinions, and are therefore sometimes more trusted by other readers.
Mari Hannah: Deadly Deceit – review coming up on Crimefictionlover.com
Marcus Malte: Garden of Love (in French) – troubling, unusual storytelling, playing with your mind and perception
Esi Edugyan: Half-Blood Blues
Martin Walker: The Crowded Grave – beautiful sense of place and an easy, fun read despite the grim subject matter (ETA separatists, terrorist plots etc.)
S.J. Bolton: Dead Scared – thrilling read about a spate of suicides amongst Cambridge students
Quentin Bates: Chilled to the Bone – review coming up on Crimefictionlover.com
Petros Markaris: Liquidations à la grecque (Greek original, read French translation) – veridical, if depressing portrayal of a country and a city in profound crisis
Not a single bad read among them, which is unusual. And my pick of the month is the only not-quite-crime-fiction read of them all: ‘Half Blood Blues’, for the self-assured, inimitable voice of a black jazz musician. The plot was somewhat predictable and yes, there is a bit of a mystery about it, although perhaps not quite enough to call it crime fiction. It felt very much like ‘Amadeus’ and Salieri’s jealousy of the seemingly effortless genius of his younger rival, Mozart. It also very nearly won a Booker Prize, which just proves once more that genre distinctions are meaningless and that crime fiction can be very literary, and literary fiction can be very criminal too!