Monthly Archives: November 2014

Someday We’ll Tell Each Other Everything by Daniela Krien

Daniela Krien’s debut novel (tr. by Jamie Bulloch) takes us to the East German countryside in the summer of 1990 shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Sixteen-year-old Maria – who narrates the novel – has recently moved to join her boyfriend, Johannes, and his family in their home on the Brendel’s farm. Maria’s parents are divorced, and with her father about to marry a nineteen-year-old, her mother’s sadness has prompted Maria’s move:

‘It drains every scrap of energy from my body, and the joy from my heart.’ (pg, 34, MacLehose Press)

Having dropped out of school, Maria spends her days with books and helping in the Brendel’s farm shop, which she hopes will make her feel less of an outsider amongst the family. At first she seems happy living with Johannes, her first lover, in the attic room at the top of the farmhouse. But then a chance encounter with Henner, the owner of the neighbouring farm changes everything for Maria, a girl on the brink of womanhood.

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Johannes’ grandmother describes forty-year-old Henner as ‘a wild one.’ Ever since his wife left several years ago, Henner has neglected the farm allowing everything, himself included, to run to seed. He is a loner, unpredictable and feral. But despite the warnings, Maria finds herself strangely attracted to this man, and the two begin an intense and unstable affair.

Henner’s attraction to Maria manifests itself in a variety of ways. At times, there is something bestial and ferocious about his desire as he forces himself on Maria almost crushing her beneath his weight. On other occasions, however, he is gentle and attentive towards the girl:

I did cry a little last night, and at one point I asked him to stop. He replied quietly, but with an odd tone to his voice, that I should have thought about that earlier; now it was too late.

The dogs are quiet again, and Henner is washing me with a warm sponge. He strokes the hair from my face and wants to make me pure again, Then he makes tea and goes into the village to fetch some rolls. He stays with me all day, feeding and cleaning me. I am not at all well. My head is hot and my mind scrambled, yet I feel happy. Just so long as he doesn’t leave my bedside; that makes me anxious. (pg. 88-89)

Before Maria can get her head around the situation, she’s in deep and when she returns to Johannes, it is Henner she desires:

Now, like a thief, sleep takes hold of me; it descends from the gloomy sky and sinks heavily onto my abused body, ill-treated by love. I can feel Henner’s hands – course, gentle, brutal, expectant – and I long for them… (pg. 54)

For the time being, the affair must remain a secret and Maria embarks on a series of furtive trips to Henner’s farm, covering her tracks by telling the Brendels she’s visiting her mother. Luckily for Maria, Johannes is so wrapped up in his growing obsession for photography that he fails to notice any signs of the affair. In fact, she wonders about the depth of his feelings for her at all:

We’re sitting by the river with our feet in the water. Johannes only ever sees me through the camera lens these days. Every gesture becomes a picture, every look becomes infinity. He delivers me from time and captures a moment, which is then immediately lost for ever – every picture is a small death. (pg. 41)

Johannes, a budding photographer, wants go to art college in the city. Maria doesn’t love Johannes, and whilst it is difficult for her to imagine the future, she feels as if they are each heading in different directions. Maria finds it easier to live in the present, moving from one day to the next, and there is a sense that time stands still when she enters the gates to Henner’s farm:

This is his road, and mine – this much I know – is currently heading in a different direction. It’s too early to say where, I’m lurching from one emotional state to another, living from one day to the next, always in the present, always in the now, and the now is Henner. Johannes and the future are unknowns. (pg. 84)

Someday We’ll Tell Each Other Everything is a thoughtful slow-burner which draws the reader into Maria’s story. Krien’s prose is spare and uncluttered, and the style suits Maria’s lifestage and sparse nature of life on the farms. We gain a sense of the mix of emotions inside the girl’s mind. Maria is inexplicably drawn towards Henner and yet she feels guilty for deceiving Johannes and his family, all the more so as they begin to accept her as one of their own. We also learn more about Henner’s backstory, and there’s a suggestion that his violent behaviour may stem from events in his mother’s past.

Krien also weaves the theme of transition into the narrative drawing parallels between different threads in the story. As Maria tries to come to terms with her emotions and decide on a course of action regarding Henner, the world around her is changing too. German reunification is imminent offering the Brendels new opportunities to modernise and expand the farm. But any change can also bring challenges with a real risk that local businesses may fall by the wayside if they struggle to conform to new regulations. The author does a good job in conveying this state of flux and sense of uncertainty amongst the family.

First and foremost though, this is Maria’s story. I liked the measured pace of this novel and the quiet way the story unfolds. The intimate nature of the narrative works well, although this style and some of the details Maria shares might not be to everyone’s tastes (Henner’s behaviour is abusive at times). Maria does come to a decision about her future, but I’ll leave you to discover it for yourself should you decide to read this book. This is a good debut with a very powerful, poignant ending, and I’ll be interested to see what Krien does next.

German Lit Month

I read this book as one of my choices for Caroline and Lizzy’s German Literature Month, which is running throughout November. Caroline, Lindsay (The Little Reader Library) and Stu (Winstonsdad’s) have also reviewed this book.

Someday We’ll Tell Each Other Everything is published in the UK by MacLehose Press. Source: review copy kindly provided by the publisher.

Game for Five by Marco Malvaldi

Earlier this year I read (and loved) Marco Malvaldi’s The Art of Killing Well, a delightfully playful and witty mystery set in the Tuscan countryside in 1895, published in the UK by MacLehose Press. Malvaldi has also written the Bar Lume mysteries set in present-day Italy, and Game for Five (published by Europa Editions, World Noir) is the first novella in this series.

Game for Five takes us to Pineta, a fashionable seaside resort near Pisa. Here we meet Massimo, long-suffering owner of the Bar Lume and unofficial guardian to four old-timers in their 70s and 80s who spend their days winding one another up and playing cards at the venue.

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One of the most delightful aspects of this novella stems from Malvaldi’s descriptions of the characters and the banter between the main players. At an early stage in the story, we are introduced to the four elderly gentlemen, each of whom has his own individual habits and mannerisms. Ampelio, who also happens to be Massimo’s grandpa, is like a child who has escaped from the watchful eye of his mother, always on the lookout for ice cream and unsuitable drinks – unsuitable for both the sweltering heat, and his state of health. In this scene, we get a sense of the other characters and their activities at the bar:

The first to open his mouth is retired postal worker Gino Rimediotti, who looks all of his seventy-five years, and who now says, as he usually does, “I’m fine with anything. As long as I don’t play in a pair with him there.”

“Listen to him! As if it’s always my fault…”

“Yes, it is your fault! You never remember what cards have been dealt even if they bite you.”

“Gino, listen, I’m fond of you, but someone who winks like he’s swallowed gravel the way you do should just keep still, OK? When you’re dealt a three anyone would think you’re having a heart attack. Even the people inside the bar know what cards you have.”

The name of the fourth man is Pilade Del Tacca. He has watched seventy-four springs glide pleasantly by and is happily overweight. Years of hard work at the town hall in Pineta, where if you don’t have breakfast four times in a morning you’re nobody, has formed both his physique and his character: apart from being ill-mannered, he’s also a pain in the butt. (pg. 24, Europa Editions)

Life in this small town is disturbed by news of a murder. Very early one morning, a local guy discovers the body of a young girl dumped in a parking-lot trash can by the side of a wood, and he stumbles into Bar Lume to raise the alarm. Having spent the night at the disco, the man is as drunk as they come, so Massimo accompanies him to the crime scene, confirms the presence of the body and calls the police. Into the fray comes the insufferable and bumbling Inspector Fusco, a man who Massimo and Dr. Carli, the police doctor in attendance, consider ‘prickly, arrogant, pig-headed, conceited and vain.

Game for Five is a hugely enjoyable book full of wry humour, and much of the story’s wit derives from the interactions between characters, especially those involving the inspector. Here he is interviewing Massimo about events on the night in question:

“Right, you live in the city. Simone Tonfoni, the person who found the body, maintains that he entered your bar at 5.10. Can you confirm that?”

“Yes.”

“After he entered, he says he phoned this station to report finding the body. The officer on duty at the switchboard thought it was a joke and hung up. Then…”

“Then I asked him to show me where the body was. We went to the parking lot, I saw the scene, went back to the bar and –”

“Please just answer my questions and don’t interrupt,” the inspector said calmly. “Did you phone the station at 5.20 A.M.?”

“Yes.”

“Did you go back to the parking lot immediately after the phone call?”

“Yes.”

“Was the scene of the crime exactly as it had been the first time?”

“Yes.”

“Did you wait for the police to arrive, without leaving the spot?”

“Yes.”

“Are you sure about what you’re telling me?”

“Yes.”

“Is yes the only word you know?”

“No.” (pg. 42)

It’s not long before the old-timers at Bar Lume start gossiping about the murder, speculating – often rather wildly – on events and possible suspects. Nevertheless, Inspector Fusco could probably do a lot worse than pay a visit to the bar should he wish to get to the bottom of the case:

“You know the neat thing about this whole business, my dear Massimo? It’s that the town already knows more than the inspector. Firstly, because Fusco is a fool” – all those present nodded in unison – “and secondly, because if something happens in this town, to someone from the town, then someone else must know something about it. Maybe someone who saw something but doesn’t know what it meant. In my opinion, Massimo, Fusco should come to the bar and talk to all the people who drop in here, then go to see all the women in their homes, then go to the market, and so on. Nobody’ll go straight to him…” (pg. 39)

Due to his involvement in the discovery of the corpse, Massimo gets drawn into the investigation. He soon realises that Fusco has jumped on the obvious suspect – a young boy who had been seeing the victim – despite the absence of a clear motive or any evidence linking this individual to the crime scene. While Massimo longs for a quiet life and would prefer to leave matters to the authorities, the more information he uncovers, the more the case niggles away at him. Underneath Massimo’s slightly weathered exterior lurks a natural empathy for others, and he takes it upon himself to talk to those who knew the dead girl in an attempt to solve the crime. Aided and abetted, of course, by his grandpa and fellow frequenters of the Bar Lume.

Game for Five is great fun. It’s an enjoyable mystery, but what really elevate this book, making it such a delight to read, are the characterisation and different shades of humour Malvaldi brings to the narrative. As I mentioned earlier, each of the old-timers comes with his own individual idiosyncrasies and ways to infuriate to others (many of which are unconstrained by political correctness). Inspector Fusco is well-drawn, as is Dr. Carli, the police doctor. And as the novella progresses, Malvaldi reveals more of Massimo’s character adding depth to our image of the protagonist. The banter amongst the old-timers and their exchanges with Massimo are a joy: some scenes are pure comedy; others peppered with slightly sardonic wit. And the interactions between Massimo and the inept Inspector Fusco bristle with prickly humour.

All in all, Game for Five is a thoroughly enjoyable book. The mystery is resolved, but you’ll have to read the book to discover how much of a part Massimo plays in the outcome. My edition comes with an endorsement from Andrea Camilleri on the rear cover, and I can see Game for Five appealing to fans of the Inspector Montalbano series.

This post is my contribution to to Petrona Remembered, a blog dedicated to honouring the memory of blogger Maxine Clarke, a passionate advocate of crime fiction. You can read more about it by clicking on the link.

Game for Five is published in the UK by Europa Editions, tr. by Howard Curtis. Source: review copy kindly provided by the publisher.

My First Wife by Jakob Wassermann

With Caroline and Lizzy’s German Literature Month in full swing, I’ve been searching my shelves for suitable books, and this one caught my eye. First published in 1934 and freshly translated in 2012 by Michael Hofmann, My First Wife is a (lightly) fictionalised history of Wassermann’s own troubled marriage to Julie Speyer. The names have been changed, but Hofmann’s afterword leaves us in little doubt that this extraordinary narrative is ‘almost wholly true. Nothing of significance has been omitted.’

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Alexander Herzog narrates the story in the form of an extended account of his relationship with Ganna Mevis over the past thirty years. Alexander, a German Jew and published author, meets Ganna when he flees from Munich to Vienna to escape his creditors and the fallout from a love affair. Ganna, the fifth of six girls born into a bourgeois family, is something of a handful: she is highly strung, ambitious, but absent-minded; an ugly duckling amongst five swans. Through her experience of life in the Mevis household, Ganna has come to believe that she must lie in order to get herself out of trouble:

‘Lying becomes an indispensable weapon for Ganna, like the black liquid into which the cuttlefish disappears.’ (pg. 6, Penguin Classics)

Ganna (who by now has developed a fixation for literature) sets her sights on Alexander despite his rather poor financial circumstances. Intrigued by the girl’s originality and excitable character, Alexander allows himself to fall under Ganna’s spell, and an engagement beckons. Even at this early stage in the couple’s relationship, the warning signs are there. Alexander detects ‘something of the sorceress’ about Ganna: her desire to please him is ‘nigh on obsessive;’ some of her movements seem strange and predatory. Nevertheless, Alexander presses ahead; he envisages a comfortable life as a writer and preparations for the marriage commence. Ganna’s father, Professor Mevis, is delighted by the union and embraces the opportunity to free himself of any responsibility for the girl. He will provide a substantial dowry, but in return Alexander must sign a prenup, a legal document that will contribute to his undoing in the years to come:

The dowry was spelled out in figures; but the rights and duties of the respective spouses were described in utterly opaque legalese. There was also something about revocability in the event of dissolution. I wasn’t familiar with the word. Since I didn’t ask, no one felt called upon to tell me. I was bored. I signed. I thought: the Professor is a man of honour, why shouldn’t I sign? It seemed unreasonable to me to ask questions. Twenty-five years later, I understood what it was I had put my name to. A quarter of a century had to pass before the light went on and I saw I had been duped. (pg. 45)

Wassermann’s description of the wedding itself is quite something. He recalls a day of indescribable noise: the endless clattering of plates; a stream of handshakes; a never-ending sequence of pretentious speeches. It’s an extended passage that cries out to be quoted, but here’s a brief summary to whet your appetite:

All in all, when I think about it today, it was a concentrated parody of the social mores of the epoch. Life of a comfortable middle class condensed into a matinee performance, with musical accompaniment from a mildly soused four-piece band. (pg. 49)

The couple’s marriage comes under pressure from the outset. Ganna maintains the purse strings insisting they must live on the interest from the dowry, the capital itself is not be touched. And so begins an endless round of false economies and fanatical bookkeeping, all spearheaded by Ganna. But by focusing on the minutiae, Ganna fails to see the bigger picture. Before long, the first of the Herzogs’ three children arrives. Finances are tight, and Alexander has to dip into the capital.

Clueless about life and lacking even a modicum of common sense, Ganna is unable to relate to the household servants. She demands the unrealistic, the impossible, and flies off the handle when people fail to deliver. Here is a woman hell bent on turning every minor incident into a crisis:

Ganna doesn’t let nature get away with anything. She believes in doctors the way a devout Catholic believes in the Holy Communion. At the slightest suggestion of a symptom the doctor is sent for, a specialist even, for whatever it is. Any and every doctor in her eyes is a sort of all-powerful bourgeois God. But there’s trouble for this Godhead if he doesn’t bring about an instant cure. Then we get blaspheming and the daughter of the heathen kraal will send for a fresh god. (pg.75)

Alexander struggles against the force of Ganna’s excessive emotions; he warns his wife, imploring her to see sense, but all his efforts are in vain:

By temperament, she was a force of nature, proof against any civilizatory intentions. All her life she took it for a brutal meddling in her character if anyone tried to rein in or refine the elemental strain in her. (pg. 55)

To impede Ganna and change the direction of her affect is as hopeless as it would be to ask a storm to kindly take itself off somewhere else. (pg. 75)

Another child arrives; the Herzogs swing from one house to another; staff come and go. By way of an escape, Alexander embarks on a sequence of affairs and eventually meets and falls in love with Bettina, an intelligent, intuitive and empathetic woman, she is the love of Alexander’s life. In time, he seeks a divorce so as to establish a new life with Bettina, but Ganna opposes the severance in the somewhat deluded belief that Alexander will come to his senses and return. After all, he can ill afford to support two households. What follows is a litany of unreasonable financial demands from Ganna, a torrent of legal letters and court orders sufficient to occupy an army of thirty to forty lawyers in pursuit of her interests. Here’s Alexander as he summarises the Ganna modus operandi:

She didn’t discriminate between good and evil, she couldn’t tell the difference between a bridge and an abyss. Lyrical paean and toxic brew, plea and threat, truth and contrivance, emotion and business, affection and embitterment – it was all one hopeless inextricable tangle. Overheated style, ice-cold calculation. In a typical run of four consecutive sentences, the first one would be self-pity, the second accusation, the third a demand for money and the fourth a declaration of love. (pgs. 175-176)

My First Wife is a distressing and detailed account of the disintegration of a marriage, all the more affecting as it mirrors the story of Wassermann’s own ruinous union with Speyer. The writing is excellent throughout, although I must admit to finding it an emotionally challenging read. Wassermann portrays Ganna as a deluded, obsessive and cruel woman determined to destroy Alexander and anything he touches. I can’t help but feel that many of Ganna’s issues stem from her troubled relationship with her father and the ‘twice-weekly prophylactic beatings’ she experienced as a child. The early chapters are quite significant as they offer an insight into the girl’s childhood:

Beatings only made her more wilful, and drove the badness further into her. When she was beaten, she would scream like a banshee. (pg. 4)

Also, there are times when Alexander’s choices only serve to exacerbate his situation. Despite Ganna’s deranged behaviour, he feels responsible for the woman and fails to take decisive action at key moments. (I’m very conscious that we only hear one side of the story and it left me wondering how Ganna would portray the marriage.) When he finally leaves to live with Bettina, Alexander hopes for a degree of tranquillity, but the spectre of Ganna continues to cloud his existence, and he finds it virtually impossible to experience any joy. By the end of the novel, he is a broken man.

German Lit Month

My First Wife is a remarkable piece of writing, a devastating story, Wassermann wrote this account at the end of his career (he died in 1934 and the text was published posthumously). If you’re interested in further information, Caroline’s blog contains an interesting piece on the background to the book.

My First Wife is published in the UK by Penguin Classics, tr. by Michael Hofmann. Source: personal copy.

Ghosts by César Aira and a Zaha Malbec wine match

On Friday I read Ghosts, a novella by the acclaimed Argentine writer César Aira (first published in 1990 and translated in 2008). It’s a strange little book, and I’m not sure what to make of it. Nevertheless, something about it caught my eye. You’ll see why later, but first I should introduce Ghosts, albeit briefly.

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The novella is set on a construction site; more precisely, in a half-finished building of high-end apartments for the well-heeled inhabitants of Buenos Aires. As the building is still under construction, the only human inhabitants are Chilean night-watchman, Raul Viňas, his wife and children who run around the structure hiding in nooks and crannies – the children that is, not Raul and his wife. But there are other dwellers besides the Viňas family, and they are the ghosts of the title. Aira’s creations are not your typical ghosts though. They are like naked men, big, boisterous and raucous, and come covered in fine cement dust:

They were listening too, but only as a pretext for bursting continually into fierce, raucous laughter. Or not so much laughter as vehement, theatrically sarcastic howling. […] The naked men shouted louder and louder as if competing with each other. They were dirty like builders, and had the same kind of bodies: rather stocky, solid, with small fee, and rough hands. Their toes were spread widely, like wild men’s toes. They were behaving like badly brought-up children. But they were adults. (pgs. 9-10)

As I mentioned earlier, I’m not sure what to make of the story as a whole, but there’s a dry humour to it which I enjoyed, especially in the first half of the book. My difficulty came at the halfway point where I got more than a bit lost as Aira slipped more deeply into philosophical territory.

What I loved about the story though was the following passage about wine, and I couldn’t resist posting it here. The Viňas family are living without the benefit of a fridge, but Raul (a ‘prodigious drinker’) has discovered an inventive method for keeping his wines cool – it’s desperately hot in their part of the building:

It consisted of resolutely approaching a ghost and inserting a bottle into his thorax, where it remained, supernaturally balanced. When he went back for it, say two hours later, it was cold. There were two things he hadn’t noticed, however. The first was that, during the cooling process, the wine came out of the bottles and flowed like lymph all through the bodies of the ghosts. The second was that this distillation transmuted ordinary cheap wine, fermented in cement vats, into an exquisite, matured cabernet sauvignon, which not even captains of industry could afford to drink every day. But an undiscriminating drinker like Viňas, who chilled his red wine in summer just because of the heat, wasn’t going to notice the change. Besides, he was accustomed to the wonderful wines of his country, so it seemed perfectly natural to him. And, indeed, what could be more natural than to drink the best wine, always and only the best? (pg. 29-30)

What indeed. And how fortunate to have that kind of ghost nearby…

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Well, I didn’t have any Argentine (or Chilean) Cabernet Sauvignon to hand on Friday, but I did manage to find a bottle of Zaha Malbec in the cupboard by the stairs. That’ll do nicely, I thought. The Zaha (which stems from the word ‘heart’) comes from the Altamira district of Mendoza, a cool-climate area where the grapes are grown at high altitude. Inky purple in colour, with a whiff of eucalyptus and a flavour profile of blackberries and liquorice, it’s unmistakably a New World wine. The grapes are mostly Malbec (90%), but I think there’s a touch of Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot in the blend for additional interest and complexity. Not a bad match for the Aira, and a very good wine without the need for any interventions from ghosts.

ALOD 2014

I read Ghosts to link in with Richard’s celebration of Argentine (and Uruguayan) Literature of Doom. All comments are welcome here, whether they’re about Aira, Ghosts or wine. And if you’ve read any of Aira’s books, I’d love to hear from you…

Ghosts is published in the UK by Hamish Hamilton, tr. by Chris Andrews. Source: personal copy. I bought the Zaha Malbec, 2011 vintage, from The Wine Society (no longer in stock).

Transit by Anna Seghers (tr. Margot Bettauer Dembo)

Anna Seghers, born in Germany in 1900 to a Jewish family, fled from Europe following the German invasion of France in 1940. Seghers (a Communist) and her family sailed from Marseille to Mexico in 1941 and she began to write Transit, a novel inspired by her experiences as a refugee, shortly after her arrival. The novel was first published in English in 1944 but did not appear in German until 1948.

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As Transit opens, our unnamed narrator, a young German man sitting in a pizzeria in Marseille, invites us to listen to his story, the whole story from start to finish. As we join him for a slice of pizza and a glass of rosé, he begins his tale. Having escaped first from a concentration camp in Germany and then from a work camp near Rouen, our narrator makes his way to Paris. Whilst in the capital, he is asked by an old friend to deliver a letter to a man named Weidel, but when he arrives at the man’s hotel, he encounters a puzzle. Weidel, a writer, has committed suicide leaving a suitcase containing a manuscript and some letters. One letter is from the Mexican Consulate in Marseille claiming that a visa and travel funds await Weidel there; the other is from Weidel’s estranged wife urging him to come to Marseille. Our narrator takes the suitcase and ultimately decides to travel to the city with the intention of handing the contents over to the Consulate. Moreover, he hopes to evade the Nazis by losing himself in the strange and unknown city of Marseille, a place on the edge of Europe:

The last few months I’d been wondering where all this was going to end up – the trickles, the streams of people from the camps, the dispersed soldiers, the army mercenaries, the defilers of all races, the deserters of from all nations. This, then, was where the detritus was flowing, along this channel, this gutter, the Canebière, and via this gutter into the sea, where there would at last be room for all, and peace. (pg. 35, NYRB Classics)

Whilst en route to Marseille, our narrator acquires refugee papers in the name of Siedler. When he tries to hand Weidel’s case to the Mexican Consulate, the officials assume Weidel is Siedler’s pen name and that the two men are one and the same person. In an effort to secure some breathing space, our narrator goes along with this assumption and begins to look for Weidel’s wife.

Our narrator, however, soon realises that Marseille is a place of departure; no one asks where you have come from, only where you are going to. In fact, the Marseille Prefect will only allow visitors to stay in the city if they can prove they are making arrangements to obtain all the necessary documentation for departure. In order to leave, a refugee requires a visa to enter the country of their destination, transit visas for all countries he/she will pass through on the journey, and an exit visa granting permission to leave France. Moreover, one or more of these visas may be dependent on other documentation: a birth certificate, lack of convictions or black marks on the traveller’s character, medical certificates…the list is endless. And each visa is valid only for a discrete period of time; if any one of these documents expires while others are being processed, the traveller must start the application sequence all over again.

One of the most compelling (and frightening) aspects of this novel is just how effectively it conveys the maze of bureaucracy and red tape refugees must navigate in order to secure a passage from Marseille. New requirements and regulations can be introduced at any time dashing the hopes of many refugees. In this passage, our narrator listens to the experience of just one of the many refugees he encounters, a man hoping to travel to Brazil:

“I had everything; I even had the eye doctor’s certificate. And eventually the consulate did open. I even reached the room of the consul, but they said they had just received a telegram, and now they were asking for proof of Aryan ancestry. And so, in accordance with the laws of this country, I have to go back to my department of origin…” (pg. 219)

Transit pulls the reader into a Kafkaesque nightmare, a ghostly world populated with grotesque and detached officials passing judgement of the future of humanity without a care for the plight of individuals. The futility of this never-ending paper chase is vividly realised:

Of course, you’re also familiar with the cavernous Prefecture and the horde of frizzy-haired bureaucratic goblins that work there, digging out dossiers from the walls of shelves with their little paws and red-lacquered claws. And then, depending on whether you’ve hit a well-disposed goblin or a malicious one, you leave the cave either happy or gnashing your teeth. They gave me a magic paper, a new invitation to appear at a later date. They indicated that a general proof of departure wasn’t enough, and that I would only receive a limited-residence permit if I brought along specific proof that I had booked passage on a ship, the date when my ship would leave, and a transit visa, giving me permission to pass through the United States. (pgs. 100-101)

As our protagonist wanders the streets of Marseille, he encounters a variety of characters, each one memorably realised even if we glimpse them for just the briefest of moments. Marseille is a city of lost and frenzied souls forever waiting in line at various Consulates and Offices, streaming in and out of the bars and cafés. There is an almost ghostly quality to their existence; trapped in limbo they long for a chance to touch the elusive horizon which remains tantalisingly out of reach. And our narrator himself is torn; should he stay and try to establish a life in the South of France, or join the others in a desperate quest for a place on a ship? His thoughts and mood change as quickly as the Marseille weather.

Finally, our protagonist spots a woman desperately searching the cafés for someone, and he is drawn towards her:

She searched through the entire café, going from table to table. She came back to my section, pale with despair. But then she immediately began the search all over again. She was alone and helpless in this herd of escaped demons. She came close to my table. Her gaze now rested on me. I thought: She’s looking for me, who else? But already her eyes had moved elsewhere. She made her way out. (pg. 83-84)

That’s about as much as I’m going to say about the plot, save to say that our narrator believes his future is inextricably linked to that of this woman, and he continues to pursue her.

At the heart of this novel lie questions of identity and destiny. Before our narrator arrives in Marseille he feels lost; he has lost something so fundamental that he doesn’t know who he is any more. And this feeling is only heightened by the shifting sense of identity he experiences on being sucked into the Marseille transit process. If only he really were Weidel, perhaps then he would feel anchored by a sense of reality:

The web of questions was so dense, so cleverly thought out, so unavoidable, that no detail of my life could have escaped the consul, if only it had been my life. I’m sure they’d never had a questionnaire so blank and empty on which they tried to capture a life that had already escaped this world and where there was no danger of getting tripped up by contradictions. All the details were in order. What did it matter that the entire thing wasn’t true? All the subtleties were there, giving a clear picture of the man who was to be given permission to leave. Only the man himself wasn’t there. (pgs. 181-182)

I found Transit to be an utterly absorbing and haunting novel, one that burrowed its way into my mind where it feels set to remain for some time. Siedler/Weidel’s story is a little like a spiral. Once in Marseille, he gets caught up in the circuit of bureaucracy that governs his status in the city. He continues to encounter the same characters again and again. He revolves around from one café to another, and several glasses of rosé and slices of pizza are consumed during a sequence of visits to the pizzeria. The narrative might sound a little repetitive – and to some extent it is – but I wonder if Seghers is deliberately using this circular structure to emphasise the seemingly never-ending chase and exasperating nature of life as a refugee.

On a deeper level, this novel also contains references to mythology and to biblical themes. And with a nod to Weidel’s unfinished fable-like manuscript, the one he left in the suitcase, Transit’s story could be seen as possessing an existential and allegorical quality. Life is an impenetrable forest, ‘a forest for adults.’  Whichever way you look at it, Transit is a truly remarkable book, one that draws you into its unforgettable world.

German Lit Month

I read this book as one of my choices for Caroline and Lizzy’s German Literature Month. I bought Transit last year on the recommendation of a bookseller, and I’ve just discovered that a few other bloggers have reviewed it too. Here are some links to other reviews from Guy, Kaggsy and Tony Malone.

Transit is published in the UK by NYRB Classics, tr. by Margot Bettauer Dembo. Source: personal copy.

The Drowning Pool by Ross Macdonald (review)

A few weeks ago I hit a bit of a reading slump; a couple of disappointments, one or two abandoned books and a terrible migraine left me craving something familiar and satisfying. Around the same, a conversation with Max (Pechorin’s Journal) reminded me of the brilliance of Ross Macdonald. So I decided to reread The Drowning Pool (which I’d read pre-blog) and write about it here. The Drowning Pool is the second in Macdonald’s series of hardboiled novels featuring private investigator Lew Archer. I haven’t read The Moving Target, the first in the series, but Max has reviewed it along with The Drowning Pool, and as ever his reviews are well worth a few minutes of your time.

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Rereading the opening paragraph of The Drowning Pool felt like curling up with a favourite glass of wine. It all came flooding back, and I knew I was in safe hands:

If you didn’t look at her face she was less than thirty, quick-bodied and slim as a girl. Her clothing drew attention to the fact: a tailored sharkskin suit and high heels that tensed her nylon-shadowed calves. But there was a pull of worry around her eyes and drawing at her mouth. The eyes were deep blue, with a sort of double vision. They saw you clearly, took you in completely, and at the same time looked beyond you. They had years to look back on, and more things to see in the years than a girl’s eyes had. About thirty-five, I thought, and still in the running. (pg. 1, Penguin Classics)

As the novel opens, Archer (our narrator) receives a visit from a visibly hesitant and frightened Maude Slocum. I love Macdonald’s description of Maude’s eyes in the passage above, the way her eyes hint at her troubled past; the things they’ve seen, not all of them good.

Maude is in possession of a poison pen letter intended for her husband, James, alleging her involvement in ‘amorous activities.’ Maude, clearly worried about the possible arrival of further letters, would like Archer to investigate but seems reluctant to reveal any details as to who might have sent this one. Initially, Archer is exasperated by the prospect of working in a vacuum with little to go on, but he agrees albeit reluctantly to take the case. It’s only as Maude is leaving his office that he succumbs, and we start to see a more sympathetic, compassionate side to Archer’s character. It’s a side I like very much indeed:

She stood up and I followed her to the door. I noticed for the first time that the back of the handsome suit was sun-faded. There was a faint line around the bottom of the skirt where the hem had been changed. I felt sorry for the woman, and I liked her pretty well. (pg. 9)

As Archer sets about his business by following James Slocum, he encounters various members of the family and their associates. There’s the Slocums’ somewhat troubled fifteen-year-old daughter, Cathy, who seems to be involved with Reavis, the family’s chauffer. The Slocums’ marriage is clearly strained, and there’s a feeling that James is attracted to the company of Mr Marvell, author of a play being staged by the local theatre group. We are also introduced to Maude Slocum’s mother-in-law, owner of the Slocum residence which happens to be worth a cool couple of million due to the oil residing beneath its grounds. The mother-in-law has, however, refused to sell even an acre of the property, leaving James and Maude highly dependent on her hospitality and a rather meagre allowance. There are one or two other key players in the story, but I’ll leave you to discover them for yourself should you read the book.

It’s not long before Archer finds himself embroiled in something more complex than an investigation into a poison pen letter. In the midst of a family gathering, the mother-in-law’s body is discovered in the swimming pool. Anyone could be a potential suspect, even Archer as he was the last person to talk to the woman before she died. The police quickly rule Archer out of their formal investigations, but he stays involved out of a desire to uncover the truth. As Max highlighted in his review, Archer is interested in truth, ‘the truth of particular things. Who did what when why. Especially why.’ (pg. 163)

That’s about as much as I’m willing to reveal about the plot. Save to say it’s well paced, and when the resolution comes, it illuminates certain scenes and interactions in the earlier sections of the book. Moreover, this plot feels somewhat less convoluted, more plausible than some of Raymond Chandler’s. As I mentioned in my review of Farewell, My Lovely, what I love about Chandler is his sharp dialogue, attitude and mood. His novels are powered by his irresistible prose style, and the storylines seem secondary to these stylistic aspects.

Returning to The Drowning Pool, what I admire about this one falls into three main areas. Firstly there’s the characterisation. Lew Archer possesses many of the typical traits of a gumshoe. He’s divorced and has an eye for a pretty woman; he likes a drink or two, and there’s a world-weary aspect to his character. But there’s something very endearing about Archer, too. I’ve already touched on his sympathetic and compassionate side, and here we see an intuitive side as he senses the damage and darkness in Maude’s past:

Her insecurity went further back than the letter she had given me. Some guilt or fear was drawing her backward steadily, so that she had to enthuse and emote and be admired in order to stay in the same place. (pgs. 37-38)

And it isn’t just Lew Archer’s persona that pulled me into this novel. Maude’s character is wonderfully realised; Macdonald seems to have a talent for painting lost or damaged individuals, people who have experienced sadness or loss in their lives. And like Chandler, he can convey a clear image of a character – along with a sense of their intentions – in two or three sentences:

A man in a striped linen suit and a washable linen hat was squatting on the pier near the top of the gangway. It was Melliotes. He straightened up, moved quickly to bar my way. He was built like a grand piano, low and wide, but his movements were light as a dancer’s. Black eyes peered brightly from the gargoyle face. (pg. 201)

Secondly, I love the way Macdonald evokes a sense of California, a place in which money and corruption live side by side. His descriptions are so vivid it’s almost as if the Californian landscape is a character in its own right. Max’s review contains a couple of fantastic quotes on the sprawling and potentially toxic spread of capitalism, its effects on the Californian environment, and we can sense the futility of it all:

A quiet town in a sunny valley had hit the jackpot hard, and didn’t know what to do with itself at all. (pg. 25)

Macdonald also uses imagery connected with the landscape and water (with a nod to the novel’s title) to reflect the deception and hurt lurking beneath the alluring surface of his characters’ world. The fiery red sunset spells danger ahead and Archer’s all set to get caught in the middle of it:

The water in the pool was so still it seemed solid, a polished surface reflecting the trees, the distant mountains and the sky. I looked up at the sky to the west, where the sun had dipped behind the mountains. The clouds were writhing with red fire, as if the sun had plunged in the invisible sea and set it flaming. Only the mountains stood out dark and firm against the conflagration of the sky. (pg. 44)

Finally, this wouldn’t be a satisfying hardboiled novel without a sprinkling of one-liners (or in some cases, two-liners). Here are a few that illustrate Archer’s tone:

She wasn’t too much of a lady to arrange herself appealingly in the chair, and dramatize the plea. There was a chance that she wasn’t a lady at all. (pg. 7)

A police car in that company seemed as out of place as a Sherman tank at a horse show. (pg. 45)

She turned and looked at me – the kind of look that made me wish I was younger and handsomer and worth a million, and assured me that I wasn’t. (pg.101)

The happy endings and the biggest oranges were the ones that California saved for export. (pg. 233)

Macdonald has created a nuanced investigator in Lew Archer, one that the reader can invest in and care for. I’m looking forward to seeing how his character develops over the course of the series as I’ve decided to carry on reading them in order. I’ll just have to forget that I read The Galton Case (mid-period Archer) last year and erase it from my mind. In the meantime, I can thoroughly recommend The Drowning Pool; just as satisfying, if not more so, the second time around.

The Drowning Pool is published in the UK by Penguin Modern Classics. Source: personal copy.

Bullfight by Yasushi Inoue

I first read Bullfight in January, and a recent reread confirms that it’s very likely to make my end-of-year list. A superb little novella, Bullfight is the second work by Japanese journalist, literary editor and author Yasushi Inoue, first published in 1949 and now available as a new edition from Pushkin Press. It really is a thing of beauty, small and perfectly formed in many ways.

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The novella is set in Osaka between the final months of 1946 and January 1947, a city in the early stages of economic recovery following the Second World War. As the story opens we meet our main character Tsugami, editor-in-chief of the Osaka New Evening Post, a novel breed of newspaper focused on culture and entertainment, and targeted towards ‘urban intellectuals and salarymen.’ On the surface, Tsugami appears rational and efficient. Under his stewardship, the paper has achieved a certain level of success, its fresh approach proving popular amongst readers looking for something different to the ‘oafish’ papers of the wartime era. Beneath this exterior, however, lurks a somewhat impulsive side to the editor’s character, an aspect visible only to his lover, Sakiko, the woman with whom he has been living on and off for three years:

“No one else knows you have this side to you,” she would say when she was feeling happy. “This sneak, sloppy unsavoury side…” (pg. 24, Pushkin Press)

Against this backdrop, Tsugami receives an intriguing business proposition; he is approached by Tashiro, who announces himself as ‘President of Umewaka Entertainment’ even though he is in truth ‘as sly a showman as any you were likely to find.’ Nevertheless, Tashiro’s proposal is a tempting one; he wishes to organise a three-day bull sumo tournament to bring the sport into the city spotlight, and he offers Tsugami an exclusive sponsorship deal: an equal share in the profits from ticket sales should his newspaper agree to co-fund and promote the event.

All at once, in the most natural manner, Tashiro had caused the scene to rise up before Tsugami like a frame from a movie: the vast modern bleachers at Hanshin Stadium or Köroen Stadium; the contest between two living creatures playing itself out within a bamboo enclosure at the center; the riveted spectators; the loudspeakers; the bundles of bills; the rocking, cheering waves of people…It was a slow-moving, cold but distinctly palpable picture, executed in lead. After that, Tsugami hardly paid any attention to what Tashiro was saying. Betting, he was thinking, yes, this could work. Everyone would put money on the bulls […] In these postwar days, perhaps this was just the sort of thing the Japanese needed if they were going to keep struggling through their lives. Set up some random event for people to bet on, and everything would take care of itself: they would come and place their bets. (pgs. 18-19)

It’s not long before Tsugami is seduced by the prospect of such a spectacle and the profits of course: the newspaper could stand to net one million yen if the tournament were to prove a sell-out. The paper’s president loves the idea of the project, so the deal goes ahead. Not that Tsugami has any semblance of a plan at this stage; there’ll be plenty of time for that later:

Tsugami had no clear plan in mind, but if all else failed they could raise the cash by selling tickets in advance. Right now his thoughts were focused less on the financial details than on the parade of bulls that Tashiro had suggested. Twenty or so bulls. It would make an eye-catching article, nice photos. At the very least it was sure to get everyone talking. (pg 31)

As preparations for the tournament get underway, Tsugami is swamped by an infinitesimal number of tasks that need to be accomplished in order for the event to take place. He must gain agreement to use the baseball stadium as a venue. There’s a bullfighting ring to construct, safety permits to secure, advertisements and teaser articles to draft…the list is endless. And while all this is going on, Tashiro is getting up to a bit of business on the side, transporting black-market goods alongside the bulls as they travel from their home in the provinces, an activity that doesn’t go unnoticed by one of the paper’s reporters. It’s appears as though ‘country showman’ Tashiro has decided he can get with anything in order to oil the wheels of the deal. Here’s the reporter as he recounts the tale to Tsugami:

“He brought that stuff up with us – says it’s all feed for the bulls. A bunch of us are pretty sure he has something else going on, though. He’s quite the huckster.” 

[…]

“Feed for the bulls, my ass. And who knows what else in in there? Still, he’s a crucial partner is this project, so I thought for the paper’s sake I’d better just pretend I hadn’t seen anything. And then in Takamatsu – it was quite hilarious, let me tell you” (pg. 72)

As the story progresses, it becomes clear that Tsugami is gambling the future of the newspaper on the success of the bullfight. Expenses continue to mount, greatly exceeding expectations; the paper’s sparse resources are stretched to their limits; Tsugami continues to focus on the details and risks losing sight of the bigger picture. He refuses to make compromises, relying instead on a conviction that everything will come together on the day, and there are few (if any) contingencies in place for unforeseen events. To reveal any more of the plot would only spoil the story, but it’s a beautifully crafted one.

Alongside the main narrative, Inoue uses Tsugami’s on-off relationship with his lover, Sakiko – who appears to consider their relationship hopeless – to tease out the nuances in the editor’s character. Eyes seem to communicate a great deal in the novel; take this passage, for example, in which Sakiko perceives Tsugami’s hidden desire to play fast-and-loose with the bullfight (and possibly their relationship, too) despite his outwardly serious nature:

But there were times when those emotionless, wicked eyes of his would push themselves toward drunkenness, Sakiko knew that very well. How she loved Tsugami for those eyes: their frenzied, lawless, mournful light. But then she realized that she would never be able to strip them of their sobriety, and her love began, from time to time, to turn itself into a hatred that glistened with sadness.

The fact that Tsugami had let himself be tugged along so easily by the bait Tashiro offered him, by the thought of the bullfight, may perhaps have owed less to his reporter’s instincts than to those sober eyes of his, and the rebellious urge he felt to make them drunk, finally, for once, on something. Sakiko had been right to speak of the hidden “unsavoury side” of his personality. (pgs. 26-27)

As you’ve probably gathered by now, I loved Bullfight. Inoue’s prose is wonderful – deceptively clear and lucid on the surface, but with sufficient depth and subtlety to make this a very satisfying and meaningful novella. On one level, the narrative can be read as one man’s gamble and decision to risk everything in the belief he will succeed; on another, the story could be interpreted as a reflection of the situation in Japan as the country tries to rebuild its economy and society following the war:

The landscape had a cold, frozen look that made him feel as though he were regarding a landscape painted on a ceramic dish. Close to the peak of Mount Rokkö there were a few white streaks of lingering snow. […] It seemed to him that something pure had managed to hold on there, something that had otherwise vanished from this defeated nation, little traces gathering, huddling together, talking quietly among themselves about who knew what. (pg. 104)

Inoue went on to publish 50 novels and 150 short stories making him one of Japan’s leading writers, and Pushkin Press published another two of his novellas earlier this year: The Hunting Gun and Life of a Counterfeiter.

Tony Malone and Tony Messenger have also reviewed Bullfight, tr. by Michael Emmerich. Source: personal copy.