Moving between cultures and trying to understand or adapt to a new environment have always been subjects dear to my heart, in my personal, professional and reading life. So it’s no surprise that four of the books I’ve recently finished feature people caught between cultures, either outsiders looking in or insiders trying to see out into the wider world beyond. In reading them, I moved between France, Morocco, Belgium, East and West Germany, American Samoa and San Francisco, Russia, Serbia and London.
Fouad Laroui: L’Etrange Affaire du pantalon de Dassoukine
A fine collection of short stories by this French writer of Moroccan origin. I had previously enjoyed his (fictional) account of being educated at a French school in Morocco, and, despite the uneven quality of the stories, they are often funny and always thought-provoking, a deserved winner of the Goncourt Prize for short fiction in 2013.
There are two very distinct types of short stories in this book. The Moroccan tales told by groups of friends around a table in a cafe are full of humour, interruptions, interjections, digressions and tender absurdity. The title story tells of a Moroccan bureaucrat who’s been sent to Brussels to try to negotiate a good price to buy wheat from the EU… but loses his trousers before the all-important meeting. Faced with a new demand from the Ministry of Education to introduce swimming in the national curriculum, schools in a small Moroccan town not possessed of a single pool prove inventive and introduce ‘dry swimming’.
There are also the more global tales of displacement, of identity, of wondering about origins and the possibility of cross-cultural understanding. The story of a couple unable to quite put an end to their relationship as they meet one final time in Brussels and the short sketch featuring a philosophy teacher being chastised by her student for introducing him to a world of pain and questioning are particularly effective.
Friederike Schmöe: Fliehganzleis
Larissa Countess Rothenstayn grew up in the GDR but managed to escape to the West and reclaim her ancestral seat in 1975. She has asked Kea Laverde to write her memoirs and Kea is enjoying her company and the peaceful palace gardens. But then the Countess is attacked and left for dead by an intruder. While the police are investigating the incident, Kea starts her own research into the family archive, trying to understand just how the Countess managed to escape to the West (her first attempt was unsuccessful) and also why she is so obsessed with the case of a young girl who drowned in 1968.
This is the second in the series featuring likeable and feisty travel writer turned ghostwriter Kea and her boyfriend, the policeman Nero Keller. This is a book I could particularly relate to, as it is a case that involves the Stasi and escape routes out of the GDR, and how we are never quite rid of the past. Perhaps a slightly more leisurely pace than Anglo-Saxon readers might be used to in their crime fiction (there is quite a bit of historical detail), but a good read and engaging characters. And I love Kea’s two geese Waterloo and Austerlitz (or Loo and Litz). What struck me was how difficult even those belonging to the same German nation find it to understand each other, given that they’ve had a different historical path and living conditions for a number of decades. The title can be roughly translated as ‘escape as quietly as possible’.
I’ve previously done a Q and A with Friederike on what got her hooked on crime fiction.
John Enright: Blood Jungle Ballet
I’ve reviewed the first one in the series and always thought that I would end up reading another one, as I enjoyed the description of Samoan culture (from the point of view of a policeman who has grown up in San Francisco). This is the fourth in the series and it has an end-of-series feel to it, as by the end of the story Apelu is burnt out and prepares for retirement on his plantation.
A disquieting string of murders terrorizes the remote, lush island of American Samoa. Det. Sgt. Apelu Soifua has seen a lot in his time with the police force, but even he is unsettled by the bodies that have started piling up. At first, the murders don’t seem connected: a local transvestite found castrated and brutalized, a visiting politician who drops dead on the dance floor, a prison guard and an inmate who kill each other, a priest specialising in exorcism seems to commit suicide. As Apelu works with the hospital’s new medical examiner imported from the US, they establish a disturbing pattern pointing to a serial killer. Although the idea of a serial killer on such a small island is a bit preposterous, what I really enjoyed about this book is that it runs on Samoan time – the whole investigation takes place over 2 years, which is far more realistic for a serial killer pattern to emerge.
The characters and the interactions are very well written, although the plot did feel a tad predictable and relies on some coincidences to come to a conclusion. There was a LOT of foreshadowing, to the point where I did at times feel like shouting: ‘Get on with the actual thing already!’. And it feels much more serious, elegiac almost, as external events (the war in Iraq, Christian missionaries) affect island life. A mourning for lost paradise – while still acknowledging that paradise has always been illusory.
Vesna Goldsworthy: Gorsky
Gorsky is a Russian oligarch determined to regain the love of his youthful sweetheart, although she is now married to an Englishman. He builds a magnificent abode on the Thames in London, right opposite her own mansion, and hires a Serbian bookseller to put together the most amazing library for him. It is Nikola the bookseller who is telling the story and if you’ve spotted the similarities to The Great Gatsby, that is indeed the case and very deliberate.
I’m not sure what to make of this fan fiction. It is amusing enough to see Gatsby transposed into present-day Chelski and the London of its super-rich (and usually foreign) new residents, and I enjoyed the description of some of the treasured books Nikola digs up, but I don’t quite see the point of this. It doesn’t seem to add much to the original story, except for that foreign point of view, of someone trying to fit in with a culture that is not his own, and that he can never be part of. And, to be honest, I don’t find the lives of the super-rich very interesting at all…