#20BooksofSummer Nos. 3 and 4: Eastern towns and dead end worlds

Bucharest in the 1970s, photo from Facebook group dedicated to old and new photos of Bucharest. For more pictures, go to the website bucurestiivechisinoi.ro

At this rate, I’m not sure I will finish 20 books this summer, or at least not read and review them, but I have read two more, and they both are set in Eastern Europe during Communist times.

Sarah Armstrong: The Starlings of Bucharest (Sandstone Press)

Set in Bucharest and Moscow in 1975. This is the story of a somewhat clueless young journalist, Ted Walker, who has escaped from the hardship of fishing life in Harwich and set off for the bright lights of London (albeit, living in an insalubrious bedsit in Plumstead). He is sent by the editor of his second-rate film review magazine to interview a famous Romanian film director in Bucharest and then later to an international film festival in Moscow, and becomes a target for the local security services.

Although it has some tense and dangerous moments, it is far less a spy thriller and more of a coming of age story, as Ted starts to realise what he is and isn’t capable of, and what people want from him. Coming from a humble background, without much education, he has been bruised by the class system in England and the Russians correctly surmise that he might be more sympathetic to their cause. Ted realises that, no matter how much he aspires occasionally to be part of the action, he is in fact far better at ‘watching it all unfold’. Above all, he is flattered by the attention that all of these mysterious bilingual people seem to be paying him: ‘I never knew I had anything to give, anything anyone wanted. It made me want to say yes without asking what it was.’

Quite an enjoyable read, and a more realistic look at the mundane details of the world of spying and the Cold War in the 1970s, more Le Carre than James Bond. However, I’m not quite sure what was the point of setting the first part in Bucharest and even giving the book that title, as most of the action takes place in Moscow. Was it purely to have another setting to describe? At that point in time, the Soviet and Romanian spy networks were definitely NOT collaborating, Romania was viewed with suspicion by the Soviets for its non-alignment with the other Communist states, while Ceausescu was still very much the darling of the Western leaders for opposing the Soviet suppression of the Prague Spring, signing agreements with the then European Community, visiting the Queen and Jimmy Carter in 1978 and so on.

From someone coming from Britain in the mid 1970s, with the oil crisis, strikes, unemployment, Bucharest can’t have seemed as grey and poor as all that. The food crisis was not yet as great as in the 1980s, clothes were plentiful and cheap (so the story of Vasile the guide craving Ted’s trousers sounds bizarre), although I agree the architecture of hastily put up blocks of flats was pretty horrible. Sorry to be picky, but if there are readers who point out that the train no. 45823 has a black undercarriage instead of dark blue, I think I can get slightly riled by inaccurate historical details.

Cristina Sandu: The Union of Synchronised Swimmers (Scribe UK)

Originally written in Finnish and translated into English by the author herself, this is a novella describing the starting point of a group of six girls who decide to form a synchronised swimming team, and their subsequent lives after they illegally leave their country during an international competition. The country of the girls is never named (nor officially recognised) other than ‘The Near Side of the River’ after the fall of the Republic, but for anybody familiar with the region, it sounds remarkably like Transnistria, with Moldova being the Far Side of the River, the ‘correct’ side, the place ‘where they can get a new passport and membership to a sports club that is internationally recognised’, sport being the ‘fragile link between two countries looking away from each other’.

I particularly enjoyed the lyricism in the parts of the story describing the girls’ childhood and their determination to become competitive swimmers, to escape from their boring lives and jobs at the cigarette factory, in a country where ‘for most of the year, the men were gone. They grabbed any kind of work they managed to get in a neighbouring country. They sent letters and packages home, and came to visit when they had enough money or their homesickness had become too great. Only the women stayed. They kept life going. They worked the land, fed and slaughtered the animals, raised the children. They ensured that the metal factory filled the sky with red smoke. They prepared the cigarettes… to be shipped far away, by land or by sea, to places they could only dream of.’

These descriptions (written in italics) were interspersed with accounts of the present-day – the experience of the six girls, now grown women, as immigrants in different countries – Finland, France, Italy, California, Saint Martin in the Caribbean – or returning ‘home’ many years later. The exploitation and subtle (or not so subtle) discrimination) they face elsewhere, but the certainty that there is no turning back, that they can no longer fit into the place they left behind either.

Much is implied or left unsaid, so I can understand the frustrations of readers who were expecting this to be more of a novel. It is, in fact, a kaleidoscope of images, impressions, vignettes from the women’s lives, the people they encounter, the conversations that mark them, a novella in flash one might say, and the gaps signify the distance between the six girls who once used to be so close. This worked upon me as a prose poem, although you shouldn’t expect something purely dreamy and lyrical: there is a lot of anger and sharp social observation too. Perhaps if you go in expecting something more like Jenny Offill’s Weather or Dept. of Speculation, you would be less disappointed. I think I know why the author chose to focus on the ‘after-lives’ of all six of the characters – to emphasise some of the univerals of the immigrant experience – but that does feel like we only get to know any of them in a very limited way, in a book that is that short.

The view of the Near Side of the River, the real-life Rybnitsa in Transnistria, town of metallurgy, and the river which might be where the girls learn to swim.

Quais du Polar 2 #QDP2020: Ayerdhal – Transparences

I attended Quais du Polar in Lyon in 2016, which was my last year in France. I knew I was going to miss both the festival and the French authors, so I asked one of the booksellers at the festival for a book recommendation. I wanted a book set in Lyon but one that was not too twee, not too much of a ‘cosy crime with lots of recipes’ (although I love that city’s gastronomic culture). They recommended this thriller by an author I’d never heard of, born and bred in Lyon, who had died all too prematurely in 2015.

I later found out that Yal Ayerdhal (born Marc Soulier, but commonly known by the surname of his pseudonym alone) was predominantly a science fiction writer, winner of multiple literary prizes, as well as an eloquent activist for protection of authors’ rights. Transparences was published in 2004 and was the author’s first incursion into thriller territory, although there are some sci-fi elements to it which purists may find disturbing. The action starts off in Lyon (with its Interpol headquarters), but the murders are on a global scale and soon we are traipsing off to the south of France, the US, to Greece, Canada and so on. 

Stephen Ballanger is a criminal profiler working for Interpol in Lyon, originally from Quebec (and therefore perfectly bilingual, which is an important plot point). He becomes obsessed with the case of Ann X, a young girl who was abused by her parents (and their best friends) and murdered all four of them at the age of twelve. She was put in a psychiatric institution but eventually killed someone there and tried to escape across the border. Although over the course of 12-13 years she seems to have engaged in a veritable murder spree (mostly people who tried to sexually abuse her or curtail her freedom in any way), nobody has been able to catch her… or indeed, even remember what she looked like. Details of her name or personal history have been redacted from her case file. Stephen’s collaborators believe she may have been recruited as a professional assassin by various spy agencies, but she also seems to be acting on her own.

So, just like in the Deon Meyer book I reviewed yesterday, we have a case of international spying and assassination, but this time we have a young, attractive female serial killer and a dysfunctional international team attempting to catch her (and none of the members of the team seem to trust each other, unlike Benny’s team). The sci-fi element of this book is that Ann X seems to be ‘perfectly transparent’, i.e. merge into the background, which means no one really knows what she looks like. Of course, she is a mistress of disguises, changing her hair and eye colour, her clothes and posture at will. But it seems that even CCTV and cameras are unable to capture her – and that seems far less plausible.

The book displays signs of what generally irks me about spy thrillers – the repetition. One killing after another, one chase after another, one near miss and then another. It’s only the location or the weapon that changes. I’m also not a great fan of complicated conspiracy theories, which seem to assume that governments and intelligence agencies are really competent. Yet there are some redeeming features, for example, the psychological manipulation between Stephen and Ann X towards the end of the book. Overall though, the book feels like it took on a theme that was a little too ambitious and didn’t quite do it justice. 

Emma and I are blogging every day that this year’s Quais du Polar (our favourite crime festival) was due to take place, 3-5 April. Join us if you like! Emma’s billet for today also is Lyon specific – have a read here.