Two Very Different Holidays

It seems a bit unfair to feature these two books in the same blog post, as they couldn’t be more different if they tried. And yet… it’s not just because of time constraints that I am comparing and contrasting them. Both of these books are (at least partially) about people failing to understand another culture and being judged for it.

Stella Gibbons: The Swiss Summer was published in 1951 and already shows the desire for escapism of postwar British culture which culminated with Ian Fleming’s James Bond. Lucy Cottrell is observant, good-tempered and diplomatic, and at the age of 40+ she suddenly finds herself invited to a Swiss chalet for the summer. Although the people she gets to spend the summer with are not always the most compatible, she is nevertheless overcome by the beauty of the landscape and not at all put off by the Swiss over-reliance on tourism. She is, however, often embarrassed by the antics of her fellow countrymen, as spotted in some of the hotels and restaurants she visits.

It is a pity that they have to behave like that… because the Swiss do still like us, even though we have no money nowadays…

The entanglements (romantic and otherwise) of the people who visit the chalet over the course of the summer are amusing, and Lucy ties herself into knots trying not to lie but also not to reveal too much to the owner of the chalet back home in England. I haven’t read any Stella Gibbons other than Cold Comfort Farm, and there is none of that exuberant satire here. This is gentle fun, reminiscent in some ways of Elizabeth von Arnim’s Enchanted April, although without quite such a pleasing resolution. Above all, the descriptions of nature really resonated with me – it’s clear how much the author loved this area. Here Lucy is, unable to sleep on a full moon night.

The soft, sad, brilliant light poured into her eyes as she looked up towards the Jungfrau’s snows, which it blanched to unearthly whiteness; the waterfall spilled out of the radiance down into the vast shadow below the massif; the slopes by Murren were lost in rich brown mists. She looked down and saw patches of shut, colourless flowers scattered up the white slopes; she saw the dizzy precipices of the Monch muffled in motionless milky clouds, and the drifts of thinnest mist twisting and winding down over the highest ridges; they seemed to trail after them long wreaths of dimly glittering stars. There was silence except for the waterfall’s sound, and the air smelled of dew.

Olivia Sudjic: Asylum Road has only just come out, and is the first novel I’ve read by her. I heard her debut novel Sympathy garnered good reviews, but it was the subject matter that attracted me to this one: the heavy spectre of the Balkans and the possibilities of cultural misunderstandings. I understand that, although Sudjic is of Serbian descent, this is not based on her personal experience – she was born and raised in the UK as a third-generation immigrant and only experienced the Yugoslav war from a distance. This book also takes place over the course of a summer, although in three different locations: France, Cornwall and Croatia/Bosnia.

Nevertheless, I suspect that there is quite a bit of Olivia in her main protagonist, Anya, who was sent as a child to live with her aunt in Scotland to escape the war. Anya is engaged to the rather cool and distant Luke, who comes from a well-off and emotionally detached family with pro-Brexit tendencies. Although Luke proposes to her near the beginning of the book, their relationship is fraught with silence and resentment, and is utterly undone after their visit to Anya’s parents and old home in Sarajevo.

The war has obviously touched Anya’s family directly, but the book shows that you do not need to have experienced the trauma at first-hand to inherit its consequences. The inferiority complex that Anya seems to suffer in front of Luke and his family (while secretly despising or making fun of them) is something I have seen very frequently in East European migrants, including myself. This quote, for instance, struck such a chord:

Of the things I cared too much about then, one was appearing civilised. In ethical terms but also in aesthetic ones. I had read the right books, bought thrifted designer clothes, gained several degrees at elite institutions and, in Luke;s flat, arranged an elegant mise-en-scene that in fact held no emotional resonance. They were props, these objects I combed from life, smooth pebbles that had once been cliffs.

They meet Anya’s dead brother’s girlfriend, Mira, who, despite a successful career in publishing, is fed up with stagnation and pro-Putin posters in Belgrade, and wants to move abroad.

It’s only a shame, that’s all. To still be stuck talking about this. Even some of the publishing people I know say that we should move on, stop making art about it, they say we’re in paralysis, which is true, politically, economically, everything. That the worst books coming out of the Balkans are the ones still going on about war… But it seems impossible not to talk about it when these people, these revisionists, still exist, even if we’d prefer to forget it.

This made me smile, because it’s one of the conversations I often have with people about whether there is a tendency to ‘typecast’ a country’s literary output and only a particular type of book gets translated into English. For Croatia and Bosnia, it might be about the war, for Romania it seems to be about the Communist dictatorship in a terribly surreal or experimental or earnest prose etc. etc. Yet, at the same time, the attention span of the reading public in the West is very limited. I’ll never forget the American journalist who told me: ‘Can’t you people just draw a line under the past and look to the future?’

Yes, it is frustrating, yes, we do wish we could escape the burden of the past. ‘The past keeps intruding. We are sick to death of it.’ Anya says at one point. I like the way the author make the narrator ashamed of her family’s rhetoric, how she tries to tone down her emotions, how she endeavours to describe everything without melodrama or fuss. Underneath it all, there is a sense of disquiet, of tension building up… Better to be the crushed victim – or the destroyer doing the crushing? And if this carapace that Anya has carefully built around herself is no longer capable of protecting her – what price tearing it down and starting from scratch?

You have to admire the control with which Sudjic navigates the story of trauma, search for identity and breakdown, and the (not always physical) violence we wreak upon others and ourselves. Certainly not a comfortable read, but an accomplished one, with echoes of Penelope Mortimer and Leonora Carrington.

Fiction Set in Dysfunctional Societies

Yasmina Khadra’s Algeria

KhadraSingesThis is the work of an Algerian writer disillusioned with his country. Disguised as a crime novel and a murder investigation, it is actually an indictment of the corruption of Algerian politics, law, police force and journalism.

A young girl is found dead in a forest outside Alger and Nora Bilal, one of the few female officers in the Algerian police, is entrusted with the investigation. Her methods are questioned and she is personally disrespected at every turn, especially when it turns out that some political figures may be involved in a complicated story of prostitution and thirst for power. Brutal, with a high body count and utterly merciless protagonists, as well as some very brave (or foolhardy) police officers, this is not a pleasant story. Khadra can come across as preachy sometimes, but he can also weave an exciting story, which ends in a very unexpected and dramatic fashion.

Other powerful fictional (more or less) representations of Algeria: Yasmina Khadra’s What the Day Owes the Night; Assia Djebar’s Algerian White; Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation.

Dan Fesperman’s Sarajevo

fespermanThe war in Yugoslavia: it’s about 1994/95 and Sarajevo has been under siege for about 2 years now. Vlado Petric has escaped army conscription by being a police officer, but even he has to admit that his job is utter nonsense: what does a domestic murder matter in a city where so many die daily in mortar attacks or shot by snipers?

Yet one night, when he stumbles in the dark upon a victim of shooting, close inspection reveals that this is no sniper incident, but a deliberate murder at close range. The victim is a head of security in the newly formed Bosnian Ministry of Interior, and it appears he trod on many toes: smugglers, black marketeers, local militia and so on. However, Vlado soon becomes convinced that something much bigger was at stake.

How is it possible to investigate in a city ravaged by hunger, corruption and desperation? How is it possible to keep your head and your integrity when all about you there is nothing but darkness and greed? This is an outstanding portrayal of a city and society driven to the utter limits, and you can forgive any plot inconsistencies or the rushed ending for the atmosphere it evokes.

Other books about Sarajevo which have stuck in my mind: Steven Galloway’s The Cellist of Sarajevo, Alma Lazarevska’s Death in the Museum of Modern Art and Zlata Filipovic: Zlata’s Diary, for a child’s perspective on war.

barnesJulian Barnes’ Soviet Union

Barnes is a keen Francophile and has lived in France, so perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that he has adopted the French habit of a mélange between biography and fiction for his latest novel, an imagining of three key moments in the life of composer Dmitry Shostakovich.

In the first instance, we see a young, anxious Shostakovich waiting with his suitcase beside the lift in his block of flats, fully expecting to be taken in by the KGB for questioning during Stalin’s worst purges in the 1930s. His recent opera was denounced as bourgeois and unpalatable, and he wants to spare his family the pain of being carted away in front of their eyes. The second moment occurs ten years later, when he has survived the war and even emerged as a leading composer, reliable enough to be sent to a congress in the US, but nevertheless very fearful of saying or thinking the wrong thing. Finally, we see him old, resigned and somewhat complicit with the arguably more liberal regime under Khrushchev.

Although the biographical detail is fascinating and probably quite accurate, it’s the human and individual reaction to an oppressive regime, the attempt to create something of lasting artistic value within the constraints of prescribed Communist values, which makes this book really interesting. The daily fears and gradual compromises are described with great insight, candour and compassion. I will be writing a full review of this remarkable (and quite short) work for the next issue of Shiny New Books.

Other unforgettable books about the Soviet regime: Martin Cruz Smith Gorky Park; Tom Rob Smith: Child 44; Boris Pasternak: Doctor Zhivago; Solzhenitsyn: The First Circle.