East European Literature Month: The Good Life Elsewhere

369px-EasternBloc_BorderChange38-48Stu from Winston’s Dad blog is an inspiration for all lovers of translated fiction. He seems to get through more books (and from a wider variety of countries) than nearly anyone else I know. For March, he is challenging and encouraging us to read fiction from Eastern Europe and I can only say bravo to him and feel slightly ashamed that I hadn’t thought of it myself, since I originally come from that part of the world. Which, of course, is currently very keen to rebrand itself as ‘Central European’.

GoodLifeKnowing what a massive problem emigration is for many of the former Communist countries, I picked a book from Moldova about economic migrants: ‘The Good Life Elsewhere’ by Vladimir Lorchenkov (translated by Ross Ufberg, published by New Vessel Press). This little-known former Soviet Republic is said to be one of the poorest countries in Europe. I have a special fondness for Moldova because it used to be a part of Romania, with whom it shares religious, historical and cultural traditions, and the majority population speaks Romanian (although the Russian state and minority population persist in calling it ‘Moldovan’).

It consists of a series of vignettes of the villagers of Larga in Moldova, who spend most of the book trying (and failing) to get to Italy, by hook or by crook, legally but mostly illegally. Italy becomes the ‘promised land’, the land of milk and honey, of plenty of job opportunities (cleaner, dishwashers or caring for the elderly) and amazing salaries of no less than 600-800 euros. Serafim Botezatu has a different but equally burning reason to get to Italy: he has been dreaming of its rich history and culture, its artists and architecture since he had come across a book called Views of Rome in the library as a ten-year-old. He has even taught himself Italian from an ancient, torn textbook that he borrowed from the library.

Needless to say, his dreams – and those of his friends and neighbours in the village – are systematically shattered. They each pay 4000 euros to people smugglers who fail to deliver them to their destination in Rome. They form a curling team in an effort to obtain an Italian visa, undeterred by the fact that they have no ice rinks or equipment, and need to practise using brooms on raked earth. They attempt to convert a tractor into a plane, only to be shot down by the cloud-dispersing bullets of the Moldovan government. The submarine they attempt to build out of the remains of the same tractor does not fare much better. One man sells a kidney and then tries to raise a pig as an organ donor. The village priest organises the First Holy Crusade of Eastern Orthodox Christians to the unclean land of Italy to reclaim the lost souls of Moldovans who have gone there.

vladimir-lorchenkov-01
Author portrait from World Literature Today.

All of these stories are cobbled together in a non-linear fashion, with jumps between viewpoints and time settings. It’s not very hard to follow, but it can be distracting, and adds to the slightly surreal quality of the tales. The humour is very black indeed: there is a lot of death by accident or suicide. Lorchenkov depicts a village and a country where everyone is corrupt, stupid, crazy or just desperate to leave, including the president, who is ready to fake his own death in a plane crash in order to find a job in a pizzeria in Italy. The satire is sharp, often biting, the stories grotesque, and – although I did smile at some of the scurrilous humour and absurd predicaments – I thought the author sometimes lacked real compassion.

I may be biased, but I did wonder if that was because he himself is Russian rather than Moldovan, and the son of an army officer rather than a farmer. At many points in the story the characters express a distaste for agriculture and hatred for the land, which does not quite ring true for at least the older generation of farmers. There were some comments about how life had deteriorated after the fall of the Soviet empire, which is probably true – the power supply, for instance, was always firmly situated on the Russian side of the border – and overall he sounds really fed up with life in that ‘failed state that no one wants’, as he has called it in interviews. But what irked me is the lack of presence of any Russians in the story, as if only Romanians and gypsies are doing silly or nasty things in present-day Moldova.

From Media Moldova.
From Media Moldova.

Moldova lives in constant fear that it could become the next Ukraine. In fact, there was a brief civil war between the two ethnic groups in the early 1990s and there is a separatist state within its tiny surface already. It remains a country with beautiful landscapes, delicious fruit and wine, a tortured history and a difficult present. I enjoyed this corrosive and viciously entertaining portrayal of a disillusioned society, but for a more nuanced depiction of the plight of Moldovan villages and the desire to emigrate, I’d recommend reading Stela Brinzeanu’s Bessarabian Nights.

This book also counts towards my Global Reading Challenge for Europe.

April Showers of Reading – and a Wowser of a Thriller

I’m not going to finish any more books this month, so I might as well do the summary now. Total number: 11

2 in French (which is why it took a while for me to read them), 1 translated from French, rest in English in original.

5 crime fiction (perhaps my lowest proportion in ages), 1 poetry

GuerresaleIn French: 

Pierre Lemaitre: Au-revoir la-haut  – deeply moving account of soldiers’ return from the trenches of WW1

Dominique Sylvain: Guerre Sale (Dirty War)

 The ‘dirty war’ of the title refers to the war over natural resources and selling of weapons, which wealthy countries carry out on the African continent. In this book, however, it is barely mentioned within the African context itself. Instead we see a stream of characters with links to the Congo (perhaps too many characters, it gets hard at times to keep track), all acting out their sad tale of corruption, revenge and nasty secrets on the streets of Paris. Sylvain can write a good old plot twist as well as the best of them, but the opening and close of this novel prove what a great writing style she has too. This is the fifth in the Lola and Ingrid series, and I love the dynamic between these two unconventional investigators, but this time it was the police inspector Sacha Duguin who took centre-stage.

 

Poetry:

Collected Poems of May Sarton

Non-crime:

I’ve talked about Stela Brinzeanu’s ‘Bessarabian Nights’ and Claire Messud’s ‘The Woman Upstairs’ in the same post, dissimilar though they are in style and subject matter. I’ve also read two other books which I’ve occasionally heard labelled as ‘women’s fiction’ or ‘book club fiction’: Nancy Freund’s ‘Rapeseed’ and Lindsay Stanberry-Flynn: ‘The Piano Player’s Son’.  Women’s literature or book club fictions sounds rather disparaging if you allow it to, but this is not my intent at all. Plus, I don’t like labels (on people, books or anything, except perhaps food labelling). However, they were of the ‘family secrets and resentments’ type of story. They were certainly not of the dull school of literary fiction, where nothing much happens except admiring self in mirror or noticing raindrops on the window. The stories were certainly not lacking in incident – in fact, there was perhaps all too much incident, like soap operas almost, full of ‘he said, she said’ accusations, misunderstandings, tears, shouting, sibling rivalry etc. I want to cast no disparagement against these writers – there were some entertaining characters and quite a few passages of excellent prose there, but I have to confess that book-length is just too much for me for this type of story. I am really not the best critic, as I am not the right audience for this kind of writing, but if you like family sagas, both these authors can write well.

Crime Fiction:

Henry Sutton: My Criminal World

Tony Parsons: The Murder Bag

Tony Parsons, known for his ‘male chick lit’ type novels about the trials and tribulations of thirty-something men with relationship problems, is now crossing over to crime fiction. Can he carry it off? Well, you’ll have to wait and read my review on the Crime Fiction Lover website.

cemeteryMallock: The Cemetery of Swallows

An unusual story, straddling the Dominican Republic and Paris, with a nearly impossible set-up and a solution that seems to border on the supernatural. Reminiscent of Fred Vargas, Mallock (both the writer and his eponymous detective) has got a style all his own. To be reviewed soon on Crime Fiction Lover.

I_Am_Pilgrim_-_hardback_UK_jacketTerry Hayes: I Am Pilgrim

I don’t like spy thrillers, I don’t like lone rangers who are mankind’s only hope of survival… and yet I read this book very nearly in one sitting. It breaks all the rules… and gets away with it.  The first person narrator suddenly starts telling you in great detail things that happened elsewhere and what was in his enemy’s mind, things he couldn’t possibly know. It jumps back and forth in time, from country to country, from character to character, all the while with the main protagonist pronouncing sombrely ‘And that was my mistake… this is where things went wrong… if I had only known about that…’, which adds to the sense of ominous foreboding. It is at times simplistic and racist, but at other times complex and nuanced. It is incredibly exciting, a cat and mouse chase which will leave you breathless, yet the story is nothing spectacularly new (terrorist attack through biochemical weapons, anyone?). It has disturbing graphic descriptions of torture – and also moments of introspection, of cynical realisation of the unsavoury practices of police and government agencies in every country. To my surprise, I loved it: it really is a wowser of a thriller!

So, all in all, an excellent month of reading: 3 outstanding books in 3 different genres, 4 very good books and no duds, just books that weren’t perhaps quite my cup of tea. For Crime Fiction Pick of the month I would say ‘I Am Pilgrim’, simply because it was surprising how much I enjoyed it – the magic of storytelling indeed! See what other book bloggers have chosen as their crime fiction pick of the month over at Mysteries in Paradise.

Coming up in May: non-fiction about parenting Far from the Tree, crime fiction of course, and some German and Japanese literature for a change.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Three Book Reviews: A Matter of Empathy

Perhaps it’s a sign of growing older, but I find it easier to relate to something or someone in most books nowadays. I can even empathise with characters described as ‘weak’, ‘silly’ or ‘unlikeable’. Perhaps because I am that myself! At least part of the time… Perhaps we are all much more fragmented, at conflict, darker, ineffectual than we like to think. Perhaps there are masks which we never take off, even in the privacy of our own rooms, for fear that we have to face a gawping void in the mirror. So here are three books I’ve finished recently, and I freely admit that all of them contain elements that I can relate to.

Photo credit: Lisa Cohen, www.salon.com
Photo credit: Lisa Cohen, http://www.salon.com

Claire Messud: The Woman Upstairs

Nora Eldridge is full of anger: from the spilling, thrilling outburst at the beginning to the more constructive anger at the end of the novel. She spouts invectives and hints at bleeding wounds, but then the style calms down a little. She becomes once more the ‘woman upstairs’, which in the author’s interpretation is not the ‘mad woman in the attic’ (the uncontrollable feminine power), although of course it slyly references that. In this case, it is the unobtrusive, undemanding, invisible neighbour that you barely speak to, who never complains, who lives in the service of others. So this book is a revolt of the meek. No more little nice girl! Anger becomes a productive force, as, in the wake of disappointments, failures and betrayal, Nora becomes convinced that the best revenge is to show others what she is capable of.  She will discard the paralysing sadness and fear or cautiousness which has limited her life thus far. She has spent too long in the Fun House, hoping to find the exit to an authentic life, and seeing nothing but doors closing one after another. Nora will become as ruthless and single-minded as is necessary to pursue her artistic ambitions:

I’m angry enough, at last, to stop being afraid of life, and angry enough – finally, God willing, with my mother’s anger also on my shoulders, a great boil of rage like the sun’s fire in me – before I die to fucking well live. Just watch me.

While this life-affirming finale is uplifting, I can also see how the rest of the novel could be unappealing to an American audience. The weakness, ineffectual dithering and self-obsessed over-analysis of the main character with her rant of self-pity is a taboo in American society, with its emphasis on taking action, positivism, the ‘you are what you think’ outlook. Nora is not old, but she is starting to resign herself to an unproductive, unfulfilled life, especially in the stifling world of pretentious academia and modern art around Boston and Cambridge, Mass. The descriptions of her small shoe-box creations and the contrast to her friend Sirena’s grandiose, over-the-top installations are more than a little tongue-in-cheek. Are they really innovative, or just jumping on the fashion bandwagon? And the name Sirena itself: surely not a coincidence, reminding us of the dangerous, addictive song of the Sirens. To guard against it, Odysseas has to tie himself to the mast and plug his sailors’ ears with wax.

One other criticism of the book that I’ve come across is that, while it is beautifully nuanced and well written, nothing much happens, i.e. it is too literary. However, I found it exciting, beautifully paced in crescendo, with a dark sense of menace. Something bad is going to happen, but who and what will provoke it?

My-Criminal-WorldHenry Sutton: My Criminal World

This will have writers of all persuasions, but especially crime writers, squirming in recognition. Poor David Slavitt is a mid-list author, whose popularity is dipping, slaving over his latest over-due novel, intimidated by the successes of his academic wife and the disdain of her colleagues. Agent-pecked as well as hen-pecked, he goes about his everyday tasks, trying to sort out plot twists between bouts of laundry and childcare, balancing his anxieties about the required level of goriness in his novels with worries about his wife’s possible infidelity. At times his mild ineffectuality and ego are so exasperating that you are willing him to confront his wife openly about adultery. You find yourself hoping that he will act out on his murderous tendencies. The interviews at the police station, in which David is more concerned about his writing career than in proving his innocence, are absolutely hilarious.

‘We’re talking about Julie Everett, your literary agent?’

‘Yes. Though, frankly, I’m not sure for how much longer. As I think I implied earlier, my career’s not going brilliantly at the moment. I narrowly missed winning a big award. And Julie’s not very keen on what I’m currently working on. […] She doesn’t think I’ve been promoting myself properly. You see, the market’s changed a lot recently.[.. .] And I suppose, to be honest, I’ve made a few mistakes.’

Although the ending felt a little forced and rushed to me, I found this to be a nuanced and very funny novel, not taking itself too seriously, yet with a rather profound underlying message about insecurity, delusion and reality.

StelaBrinzeanuStela Brinzeanu: Bessarabian Nights

You may wonder what I recognise of myself in this sad story about sex-trafficking of women by a Moldovan writer now living in London. It is not the beautiful Ksenia (the girl that is forced into prostitution while on holiday in Italy) that I identify with, but with her ‘blood sister’, Larisa, who is studying in England. Together with their third childhood friend, Doina, she moves heaven and earth to find out what has happened to Ksenia when she goes missing. Larisa represents a cultural bridge between East and West, feeling equally out of place in both worlds, repelled by the backward superstitions in her home country (described as a place where men are either drunk or violent or frequently both), yet not quite fully accepted or integrated into the new culture.

The British TV drama ‘Sex Traffic’ (2004) did a fantastic job of showing both the individual stories of two Moldovan sisters and the global tentacles of the human-trafficking business. However, not all that much has changed since then.  Human trafficking continues to be a major problem in Moldova and, although the government has recently cooperated more with NGOs to tackle the issue, it does not comply with minimum standards for eliminating trafficking. So this is an important story which needs to be heard. Again.

The title is a play on the ‘Arabian Nights’ theme, and Brinzeanu does come across as a Scheherazade of our times, eager to share stories about her little-known country on the fringes of Europe. This is a debut novel and the author is so brimful of stories that the book feels crammed with facts. The reader may well feel at times lectured at, even if it is disguised as dialogue. The book is at its most successful in those dream-like flashbacks describing the girls’ childhood in a Moldovan village where time seems to have stood still. Perhaps, like Scheherazade, the author needs to learn to select the most relevant scenes and polish those to perfection. There are a lot of gems in there, but they sometimes get lost in the multiple anecdotes.

So over to you, dear reader! Are there any books that have particularly resonated with you lately, any characters you have related to, or does an unlikeable character make you want to stop reading?