Monthly Archives: September 2014

Escape by Dominique Manotti (tr. Amanda Hopkinson and Ros Schwartz)

Escape is my first encounter with Dominique Manotti – a French crime novelist and specialist in the economic history of the 19th Century – and it’s a very enjoyable one indeed.

The novel opens in 1987 with the escape of Filippo and Carlo from an Italian prison. For the past six months, Filippo, a simple petty criminal from Rome, has been sharing a cell with Carlo, a former leading figure in the left-wing Red Brigades movement. During this time young Filippo has been in thrall to Carlo, mesmerised by his charismatic cellmate’s story of activism and violence against the authorities.

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Carlo has engineered his escape via the prison’s waste-disposal chute, and Filippo, who happens to be in the right place at the right time, dives into the rubbish skip to join his cellmate as he makes his exit. Carlo’s associates are waiting for him on the other side, but no one wants Filippo tagging along for the ride. As a result, Carlo sends Filippo on his way with some sage advice, words that continue to flit through Filippo’s mind during the days and months to come:

‘We part company here.’ He places a canvas bag at Filippo’s feet. ‘I’ve put everything I could find in the cars in there for you. Clothes, two sandwiches, and some money.’ Carlo pauses, Filippo says nothing. ‘My escape will be in the news, I think. And they’ll be looking for you, because you broke out with me. You’ll have to keep a low profile for a while, until things settle down.’ A pause. Filippo still saying nothing. ‘Do you understand what I’m telling you?’

A nod. Filippo continues to gaze at the mountains.

‘If things get too tough here in Italy, go over to France. Here on this envelope, I’ve written the address of Lisa Biaggi, in Paris. Go there and say I sent you, tell her what happened. She’ll help you.’ Filippo takes the envelope without looking at Carlo and slips it in the bag. Carlo stands up.

‘Goodbye, Filippo. Take care of yourself.’

And he leaves, walking fast and without turning round. (pg. 5, Arcadia Books)

Carlo’s swift departure leaves Filippo feeling bereft and abandoned. He decides to head north across the mountain paths and two or three weeks later, he hits Bologna. On his arrival in the city, Filippo buys a newspaper and reads of Carlo’s death during an attempted bank raid in Milan. Moreover, two of Carlo’s accomplices were observed fleeing the scene leaving a member of the carabinieri and a security guard for dead.  Filippo quickly realises he’s almost certainly a prime suspect for the crime, and skips to Paris in search of Lisa.

Lisa – a political refugee from Italy and Carlo’s girlfriend – is suspicious of Filippo and believes Carlo’s death may have been a planned assassination, a set-up involving the Italian Secret Service. Nevertheless, she finds Filippo an apartment in Paris (by way of her friend, Cristina), but wants little more to do with him. Once again, Filippo feels dumped and worthless:

He’d jumped because he’d followed Carlo, like iron filings to a magnet. His thoughts always returned to Carlo. His form, so clear, so close, within reach, a warm glow – Filippo closes his eyes and hold out his hand, as he used to do in their cell, but only encounters emptiness. He hunches over his sheet of paper; his drawings overlap. Above all, Carlo is a voice, a language, and stories. The memories of never-ending nights spent listening to him flood back powerfully, overwhelming him, those memories that he’d tried to bury, to destroy because he felt abandoned, betrayed. Carlo had the words to talk about the struggle of those heady years, the passion, the battle against slave labour, the thrill of the fight, the euphoria of victory, the agony of defeat and the joy of freedom, jubilant violence. Being prepared to put your life at risk, every day. For a while I wanted to forget everything about him. Betrayal. Impossible. Filippo is suffocating. The sheet of paper is now covered in black. He screws it into a ball, throws it into the waste-paper bin and picks up another. (pgs. 43-44)

Gradually, Filippo channels his frustration in a more positive direction. Filippo recalls how Carlo inspired him to find a way of expressing his feelings through language, and the young escapee decides to document his story. He sees this as a means of demonstrating his own importance, to show Lisa and Christina he means business. Filippo wants to claim Carlo as his own:

Those two [Lisa and Christina] will come to understand that Carlo is mine, not theirs, and that he never did belong to them. A story of men. (pg. 45)

Filippo writes the story, starting with the pair’s escape from prison and ending with the botched bank raid, embellishing his own role in events at every stage. His narrative is compelling, his characters realistic and free of the typical stereotypes of the genre, and his novel is snapped up by a publisher. Keen to position Filippo’s ‘story’ as a fictional one, the publishers advise him to change the characters’ names together with the date and location of the bank raid just to be on the safe side. On its publication in France, the novel is a major success and Filippo – expertly groomed and coached by the publisher’s in-house publicist – is in demand for interviews and public appearances. But as the novel’s fame grows, Filippo is at risk as the Italian police, the public prosecutor and intelligence services begin to suspect that the book presents the authentic version of events. And as Lisa, a former journalist, begins her own investigation into Filippo and Carlo’s story, her discoveries lead back to political events and acts of corruption in the recent past.

I enjoyed Escape very much. Manotti draws on The Years of Lead, a period of socio-political turmoil and terrorism in Italy that lasted from the late-sixties to the eighties, to provide some context for events in her novel. Acts of unrest and terrorism were attributed to far-right and far-left groups depending on the source, and corruption was rife. Manotti uses this framework to produce an intelligent and intricately-plotted novel with several layers and developments, one that held my attention throughout. At 160 pages, it’s a pacey and thought-provoking read on a political and emotional level.

Filippo, the novel’s central character, is very engaging and so much more than just a one-note street criminal. We understand his conflicted emotions: his admiration for Carlo during their time as cellmates; his feelings of rejection when Carlo abandons him; his need to prove himself to Lisa and Cristina. And we follow his transformation from naïve kid to self-assured literary star.

Escape also shows us how the relationship between reality and fiction is often complex. In an afterword to the novel, translator Amanda Hopkinson mentions that Manotti, a former political and union activities herself, has turned to writing novels ‘par désespoir’. As one of the characters in Escape reflects ‘If I want to try and salvage our past, there’s only one thing left for me to do. Write novels.’

Stu at Winstonsdad’s and MarinaSofia at findingtimetowrite have also reviewed Escape.

Escape is published in the UK by Arcadia Books. Source: review copy kindly provided by the publishers.

The Things We Don’t Do by Andrés Neuman (tr. by N Caistor and L Garcia)

A year or so ago I read Andrés Neuman’s epic novel Traveller of the Century and its ideas coupled with an abundance of grace, charm, wit and intelligence just blew me away. And then came Talking to Ourselves, a shorter but no less compelling novel; it’s a meditation on the proximity of death and grief, a kind of literary collage comprising three distinct voices each adding different tones to the narrative. So, imagine my excitement when I received a copy of The Things We Don’t Do, Andrés’ collection of short stories. Early versions of a few of these stories, in different translations and often under another title, have appeared in literary magazines (such as Granta), but all the stories in The Things We Don’t Do are newly translated by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia.

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The thirty-five stories in this collection are divided into five groups entitled The Things We Don’t Do, Relatives and Strangers, The Last Minute, The Innocence Test and End and Beginning of Lexis. While I can see connections between some of the stories in each section, the collection as a whole touches on a number of different ideas. One of Neuman’s main themes is how a closeness to death gives us a growing sense of our own mortality, and several (although not all) of the stories in the Relatives and Strangers and Last Minute sections deal with this aspect, or with death itself. In A Mother Ago, a man accompanies his mother to the hospital, her illness is advanced and he knows the outcome depends ‘on the toss of a coin’:

I offered my arm to my mother, who had so often given me hers when the world was very big and my legs very short. Is it possible to shrink overnight? Can someone’s body turn into a sponge which, impregnated with fears, gains in density while losing volume? My mother seemed smaller, thinner, and yet more weighed down than before, as though prone on the floor. Her porous hand closed around mine. I imagined a little boy in a bathtub, naked, expectant, clutching a sponge. And I wanted to say something to my mother, and I didn’t know how to speak.

The proximity of death squeezes us in such a way that we might be capable of losing our convictions, of letting them ooze out like a liquid. Is that necessarily a weakness? Perhaps it is a final strength; to arrive somewhere we never expected to arrive. Death multiplies our attention. It wakes us twice. (pgs. 43-44, Pushkin Press)

Other stories touch on the subject of our identity. In one of the most playful stories in the book, Juan, José, we meet a man undergoing counselling following the death of his parents; unable to move on, he believes and behaves as if his parents are still alive. As this tale progresses, the boundaries between the identities of the two characters begin to blur, and it becomes increasingly difficult to tell which of the two is the patient and which is the counsellor. Interestingly, another therapist – a different one this time – crops up again in a darkly humorous story, Outside No Birds Were Singing, played out as a frantic telephone conversation between a counsellor and her seemingly suicidal patient.

Another clutch of stories explore the relationship between guilt and innocence. A man tells of his presence at the scene of John Lennon’s murder at the Dakota; we see how feelings of guilt stealthily corrode the relationship between two friends after they are mugged in the street one night. And in After Elena (one of the highlights of this collection for me), Neuman explores the theme of forgiveness; following the death of his wife, a man decides to forgive each of his enemies, and we see the differences in the source of their animosity and reactions to this gesture.

Perhaps my favourite stories in The Things We Don’t Do focus on relationships. A Terribly Perfect Couple tells of the pitfalls of having too much in common with your partner, the dangers of ‘an excess of symmetry’. In A Line in the Sand (another highlight) the dynamics in a relationship tilt as we are left considering how to understand a partner’s feelings, territories and boundaries. And in Second-Hand, a woman s discovery of a coat in a thrift shop leads to a re-examination of her relationship with her husband. The coat looks suspiciously like the one she gave her husband the Christmas before last, the one he insisted looked ‘really great’ :

She studied the coat once more, then put it back. It was that one. It wasn’t that one. She didn’t know if it was that one. She felt the dagger twisting in her stomach again, and a pain encircling her head and pressing down on her vertebrae. She had spent all day – all her life – on her feet. When had they last gone on a trip? A real trip, just the two of them? They hadn’t had enough money. Or, above all, any reason to go. But that dark suede coat, where on earth had it come from? She searched the inside pockets, hoping to find some evidence to confirm her suspicions. They were empty. (pg. 23)

The Things We Don’t Do is an excellent collection of stories, one that illustrate Neuman’s considerable range and skill as a writer. These stories vary in tone, mood, style and length; some are playful, others more sombre in tone; some include metafictional elements while others are more conventional (but never ordinary) in terms of style. One of the things I love about these stories is their ability to surprise – one never quite knows what might be coming next.

On the whole, I would say these short stories are closer in style to Talking to Ourselves than the richness and generosity of Traveller of the Century. That said, I recognise the writer of Traveller in some of the stories, especially those in the final section: Piotr Czerny’s Last Poem, The End of Reading and The Poem-Translating Machine. The latter story focuses on another of Neuman’s favourite themes, that of translation; not simply the need to translate language, but the idea that we are constantly translating and interpreting feelings and gestures in our communications with others.

The collection ends with a series of Neuman’s reflections on the short-form narrative; not a set of rules as such, but a ‘playful way of approaching the essay,’ and they make interesting reading.

I’ll finish with a quote from the title story The Things We Don’t Do, which reads like a prose poem:

I like that we don’t do the things we don’t do. I like our plans on waking, when morning slinks onto our bed like a cat of light, plans we never accomplish because we get up late from imagining them so much.

[…]

I like all the proposals, spoken or secretive, which we both fail to carry out. That is what I most like about sharing our lives. The wonder opened up elsewhere. The things we don’t do. (pg 31)

This is my first review for Richard’s celebration of Argentinian (and Uruguayan) lit which starts today.

The Things We Don’t Do is published in the UK by Pushkin Press. Source: review copy kindly provided by the publisher.