He sat at the wheel of the car until almost two o’clock in the morning, with the doors locked, the windows rolled right up, the lights out, the radiator grille almost projecting over the edge of the cliff into the void. His eyes, once they were accustomed to the dark, were spellbound by the breathing of the pelt of the sea, swelling and sinking again and again with the expansive yet restless respiration of a giant whose slumbers are periodically punctured by nightmares. At times a sound escaped like an angry gust. At others it sounded like a feverish panting. And again there rose the sound of breakers in the night, gnawing at the coastline and retreating with their booty to the deep. Here and there ripples of foam glistened on the dark pelt. Occasionally a pale milky beam passed high above among the stars, perhaps the quivering of a distant coastguards’ [sic] searchlight. As the hours passed Yoel had difficulty distinguishing between the murmur of the waves and the throbbing of the blood inside his skull.
A jaded, washed-up ex-spy just wants to get out of the game and get on with his life. But is anyone ever allowed to be an ex-spy?
Yoel tries to live retiringly while striving to understand and get on with the women in his life, all of whom seem to be stronger characters than him – his prickly, incomprehensible (to him) daughter living with a syndrome that is apparently epilepsy, his mother and his mother-in-law, and his attractive neighbour (too good to be true?) – not to mention his wife who died in a bizarre accident (or was it?)
He tries to be reasonable with his daughter despite her goading of him but seems to make no headway.
Despite his best efforts to keep out, his former life keeps intruding. He still keeps his old spy habits (such as making sure he parks nose out, ready for a quick getaway). The estate agent Kranz, who also suddenly comes into his life, seems nosy and suspiciously helpful – we can’t help asking ourselves whether those over-eager to help him are plants?
Eventually he is forced to come back into Mossad against his will, and when he refuses to do a messy job, his substitute gets killed in Bangkok – his feelings of anger and survivor’s guilt are so easy to identify with. It seems that he (and Israeli Jews in general?) are compelled to be forever grateful for their homeland – and to be inescapably obligated towards it. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but perhaps Yoel’s unsuccessful relationship with his women is also a metaphor for Israel’s seemingly impossible relationship with its incompatible neighbours.
Oz is someone else whose work I must read more of. Sadly this great Israeli writer, commentator and peace activist died not long before I read his work.
Oz, Amos (1939-2018), To Know a Woman, translated from Hebrew by Nicholas de Lange in collaboration with the author, London, Vintage, 2001 (first published 1991), ISBN 9780099913405.
One man… was curious, and this made me smile a bit, as to whether I had seen the gas chambers. I said to him: “If I had, we wouldn’t be standing around talking now.” “Yes, of course,” he rejoined, but had there actually been any gas chambers, so I said, sure, there were gas chambers too, naturally, among other things; it all depends, I added, what type of person was in which camp. In Auschwitz, for instance, you could bet on it. “But in my case,” I noted, “I’ve come from Buchenwald.” “From where?” he asked, so I had to repeat it: “Buchenwald.” “So, from Buchenwald, then,” he nodded, and I said, “That’s right.” “Let’s get this straight, then,” he said in response, with a stiff, austere, yet somehow almost preachy face. “You, sir,” and I don’t know why but I was almost stunned by this very formal and, I would say, somewhat punctilious mode of address, “you have heard about the existence of gas chambers,” so I said, sure I had. “Nonetheless, sir,” he carried on with that same austerity of one who is restoring things to order and clarity, “you personally, however, did not ascertain this with your own eyes,” and I had to admit that I hadn’t. To that he merely remarked, “I see” and after giving a curt not strode away, stiffly, erectly, and as far as I could see, unless I was very much mistaken, satisfied in some manner.
As on the one hand the last survivors of the Nazi Holocaust are leaving us, and on the other hand an increasing number of countries in the world are beset by the rise of rabble-rousing populists or even neo-fascist parties (some of whom deny that the genocide even took place), it seems more urgent than ever that we listen to the horrors that happened then because of hatred – and tragically have happened several times since, as some of the stories in this project tell.
Gyuri is 15. Although he does not at first fully grasp what is happening, his father is being sent ‘away on labour service’, in fact to a concentration camp, and feels compelled to make over his lumberyard business to Sütő, a non-Jew (”completely aboveboard regarding his race”), without a receipt, hoping he will take care of it for the family.
In time, Gyuri himself won’t be spared the concentration camps. Kertész minutely describes what it feels like to be sent to camps. This is not exactly like what people necessarily assume, even those horrified by them.
There are moral dilemmas – what is the right decision, what is the right way to conduct oneself in such a horrifying situation, amidst the uncertainty (and self-delusion?) about what will happen.
This is an uncomfortable read (and not always in the way you might expect), but it’s a great work of literature and highly recommended. Kertész won the 2002 Nobel Prize for Literature.
KERTÉSZ Imre (1929 – ), Fateless, translated from Hungarian by Tim Wilkinson, London, Vintage, 2006, ISBN 9780099502524
(also translated as Fatelessness)
First published in Budapest as Sorstalanság in 1975
Then the guitarist began strumming the chords of another song. They do sing songs like this, Man said. It was Yesterday by the Beatles. As the three of us joined in singing, my eyes grew moist. What was it like to live in a time when one’s fate was not war, when one was not led by the craven and the corrupt, when one’s country was not a basket case kept alive only through the intravenous drip of American aid? I knew none of these young soldiers around me except for my blood brothers and yet I confess that I felt for them all, lost in their sense that within days they would be dead, or wounded, or imprisoned, or humiliated, or abandoned, or forgotten. They were my enemies, and yet they were also brothers-in-arms. Their beloved city was about to fall, but mine was soon to be liberated. It was the end of their world, but only a shifting of worlds for me. So it was that for two minutes we sang with all our hearts, feeling only for the past and turning our gaze from the future, swimmers doing the backstroke toward a waterfall.
I posted on Vietnam back in October 2014, on the long poem The Tale of Kieu, but since then I decided to limit myself to novels, so I had to re-read Vietnam. No hardship, for I discovered this wonderful book which deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
It begins with the chaotic US evacuation as Saigon fell to the communist North Vietnamese in 1975, the end of the Vietnam War as it is known in the West. The protagonist, a captain, flees to the US with his general, who little suspects that the captain is spying for the communists. He becomes enmeshed in and apparently enjoys the American way of life. The captain is split in many ways – half French half Vietnamese, a communist who lived under capitalism in South Vietnam and the US, a Vietnamese and an American. In fact he is a symbol of the split personality of Vietnam itself – North/South, Communist/Capitalist, not to mention of the US, whose double standards of the time are also on full display. There are some unforgettable scenes – the desperate last snafu days as the US fled South Vietnam, the murder, the interrogation, and the Hollywood war movie for which the captain is a reluctant and ignored consultant, and which ends up like a mini war in itself.
Nguyen’s writing is spectacular, dripping with all the irony the situation begs for (his handler is literally a ‘faceless man’, and I’m sure that a ‘sleeper’ agent would find it difficult to sleep!) It was maybe the hardest book so far to choose just one quote to showcase, I wanted to share so many! I can’t recommend it too highly.
NGUYEN, Viet Thanh (1971 – ), The Sympathizer, London, Corsair, 2016, ISBN 978-1-4721-51360 (first published 2015)
The years were passing. Sometimes I remembered how my re-encounter with La Paz had been, when, at the end of the eighties, I came to study history at San Andrés. I was struck by the colour of the heights, between ochre and reddish, a limestone conformation that hinted that we were in a place little given to the somnolent manifestations of routine, and the snowy majesty of Illimani dominating the city from the distance…
Sometimes this project, at least the reading in the original language, seems like a struggle between encouragement and discouragement. Yet again, after the disillusionment with my Spanish when struggling to read Tres Tristes Tigres (for Cuba), comes an easy and enjoyable novel from Bolivia which restores my faith in my language ability. The same happened not long ago when Guinea followed Chad in French. It makes me hope that maybe it’s not me, it’s the books.
Oscar is obsessed with the presidential palace. As a boy he frequented the Palacio Quemado (the Burnt Palace), a labyrinthine, disorienting building, the symbol of the country’s lost governments, which received its strange name from being almost totally destroyed in an 1875 revolt. His brother Felipe had died there, giving him another level of mystery to penetrate.
His father worked in the Palacio Quemado as dictator Banzer’s Information Minister, and he himself ends up in the press office concocting inspiring speeches that he doesn’t believe in for the president. It is a moot point what he does believe in, if anything. For him the speeches are virtually only works of art, not something that represents life and death to the people. Nevertheless he seems to think that if only his speeches were true, Bolivia would be saved. The compassionate speech that he writes for the president doesn’t match Canedo’s body language, its failure is all down to him. Oscar turns out to be out of sync with both Canedo (who is a lame duck less than a year into his presidency) on the one hand and the people on the other (who are in a tax revolt).
His relation with Natalia, who also works in the government, is ambiguous, like the one he has with the government itself. She tries to open his eyes to how corrupt political life really is. When he goes into a slum the people there intimidate him for his supposed support of the government. Oscar’s own sister is on the opposite side of politics.
Palacio Quemado is a great look inside the unfortunate side of Bolivian politics, and highly recommended. Unfortunately I don’t think it has been translated into English.
PAZ SOLDAN, Edmundo (1967 – ), Edmundo, Palacio Quemado, Miami, Alfaguara, 2006, ISBN 978-1-59820-546-3
I died on the evening of the most beautiful day in my life: I died on the evening of my wedding in the Saint-Philippe-&-Saint-Jacques Church. Everyone believed that I had been struck by lightning at the sacramental Yes which had gushed out of my guts. It was said that I had been carried away by the fire of my consent, so powerful and true was it. I was supposed to have been hit by my own bridal thunderbolt.
Now we are in Haiti and in the world of voodoo, which originated in Benin, our last country! In 1938’s Haiti, a young French bride, Hadriana, dies at the very moment of making her marriage vow to Hector Danoze in church. Her death provokes a religious tug-of-war between the ‘enemy brothers’ of the orthodox Catholic church and the adherents of voodoo spiritualism, a microcosm of the religious situation in Haiti as a whole.
There is a forest butterfly, manipulated by a secret society, which poisons virgins and turns them into zombies. It poisoned the lemonade at her wedding. A sorcerer is believed to have taken her corpse out of the cemetery to make use of it.
Will she escape?
The tale is told by Hadriana herself, including her experiences after becoming a zombie! I had always ridiculed tales of zombies, but reading this beautifully written tale from Haiti where they are deeply embedded in religious belief – as with vampires, after reading Mary Shelley’s Dracula – changed my thoughts (to some extent…) Zombies are carefully (almost scientifically) described as people who display all the symptoms of clinical death, but are still able to use their mental faculties. After burial they are raised by a sorcerer to be subjected to forced labour in the fields (zombie-jardin) or an urban workshop (zombie-z’outil).
There is some wonderful writing, such as the lovely description of the butterfly-colourful local buses, tap-taps.
You could take the symbolism further and see Haiti (once the richest place in the Western Hemisphere) as a whole as the beautiful, promising woman who has fallen into zombiedom. On the whole, a lovely, disquieting book.
DEPESTRE, René (1926 – ), Hadriana dans tous mes rêves = Hadriana in all my dreams, Barcelona, Gallimard, 1988, ISBN 978-2-07-038272-9
DEPESTRE, René, Hadriana in All My Dreams, translated by Kaiama L. Glover, NY, Akaschic Books, ISBN 9781617755330
Convinced that all women, even those who seem truly attached to their husbands or determined never to let themselves be dishonoured, can be seduced, that those who remain indifferent to the first manifestations of love by a man, insensible to beauty, to the birth or standing of a would-be lover, deaf to his supplications or to the language of rich presents, would be unable to resist the charm of philtres. Vidaho had successively put everything into play in order to conquer Doguicimi.
When it came time to read my novel from Benin, I was thrown into a slight panic when I realised that what I had bought was not the novel I had chosen, Doguicimi by Paul Hazoumé, but a collection of literary essays on it! The novel itself seemed to be out of print, at least in French. If I was to go reading countries in order, I’d have to wait while I got a copy of the actual novel (or another one). One of the many perils of ordering books online. (Not long before, I had ended up with an Armenian book with the right title, but that turned out to be a collection of short stories, not the novel I wanted). Finally my second-hand copy arrived, covered in obscure pencil notes that I had to erase before I could read it. But I did have my chosen book.
Set in the old kingdom of Dahomey, it tells the story of how the king is so determined to go to war that he ignores the ancestors (whose wishes are transmitted via the ‘devins’ – soothsayers). His advisor Toffa is captured in the resultant debacle and is treated by definition as a traitor. Toffa’s wife is the feisty Doguicimi. Everyone is surprised that she doesn’t get done away with for speaking out, but it turns out Vidaho, the heir to the throne, has become secretly enamored of her and becomes obsessed with getting her, while Doguicimi remains steadfastly loyal to her captive husband at great personal risk till her horrible self-sacrifice. Personally, I found it hard to understand why she was so attached to him considering the way he had treated her! I suppose it is tradition and the need to be respected; perhaps her name (which is explained halfway through to mean something like ‘cite me as an example’ has something to do with it.
The people’s opinions about the Whites, who are starting their encroachment on the region, are fascinating – what the latter see as their strengths, the former see as their weaknesses. There is obviously what we would now call racism from both sides, but it is easy to understand the feeling against outsiders trying to take control of their land. By modern standards, the arrogance of the ruling class, especially, of Dahomey comes off as unpleasant.
It took me a long time to read (510 pages, plus rubbing out time!) but I learnt a fascinating amount about the culture of ancient Dahomey (renamed Benin after independence) from this book. It is a classic of early indigenous African writing and a rare chance to see this time through their eyes.
HAZOUMÉ, Paul (1890 – 1980), Doguicimi, Paris?, Francopoche, 1978, ISBN 978-2706806711
HAZOUMÉ, Paul, Doguicimi: The First Dahomean Novel, translated from French by Richard Bjornson, Washington DC, Three Continents, 1990, ISBN 9780894104060
That happened one especially torrid summer Saturday. The embers of the afternoon had died down. The setting sun, red and immense, sank slowly but inexorably behind the Mountain, in a farewell full of passion and infinite sadness. The entire universe was engulfed in a light of dusty ochre and blood.
Strong-willed, religious Horïa lives alone and isolated with her old black servant Sââd, getting her only consolation by contemplating the view of Lion Mountain above. Her eldest son has gone to an America she can’t begin to imagine, her youngest is off fighting somewhere for who knows what (he is accused of being a terrorist). As she comes to discover, his letters had not been delivered to her for years. But she is about to lose her view of the mountain to a planned tourist centre (the concept of tourism is equally foreign to her). What right do they have? In a scenario familiar to people all round the world (such as the Amazon Indians having their land stolen right now), how do you stop ‘development’ from taking your land and destroying your way of life, when everyone knows that it’s your land, but you have no legal document to prove it according to the interlopers?
In the novel, tourists discover the mountain, and make a film and an illustrated book about it. When the President hears about this, he is ashamed and wants to develop a tourist complex there. Everyone else blames Horïa for hindering prosperity; even the imam avoids her. She is an ‘obstacle to progress’, considered a fool and senile.
Sââd had undergone torture for not wanting to join the Party. Horïa is equanimous and tries to keep to her own life, and concentrates on weaving her qilims, asking him to stay silent. Nevertheless, it all ends in a blaze of violence.
This is a simple but great and passionate novel. It was banned in Tunisia.
TLILI, Mustapha (1937-2017), La montagne du lion, Mesnil-sur-l’Estrée, Gallimard, 1988, ISBN 2-07-071395-4
Is murder unforgivable because the only person from whom rightful forgiveness could come is no longer there?
In 1994 I went on holiday in South America. I was totally shocked that in the short time I was away, up to a million people were massacred in an intentional genocide in faraway Rwanda. I still suffer a strange feeling of guilt over that.
This novel is the story of two characters struggling to deal with the trauma from that time. The young woman, Isaro, had to flee the country for France after her parents were murdered. She comes up with the ‘modest’ research project of interviewing all the survivors and putting their stories into one book. What she does come up with is a novel, which centres on the other main character, Niko – we don’t find out that he is only her creation until right at the end. Niko is a sociopath and a mute, who has banished himself to a nose-shaped island in a lake, populated by monkeys. While he was not popular, he was a peaceful blacksmith until the day the genocidal army came and he is forced to club to death another man who may – or may not- be his own father, or else both of them will be shot; and he must decide whether to die or become a murderer in a split second. He chooses to kill and to live, and becomes the enthusiastic leader of a band of thugs.
I would have loved to have had the inexplicable explained – that is, why the genocide happened and how apparently normal decent human beings could carry out such heartless brutality on those they had lived with peacefully. I didn’t feel that I did get it. Maybe it’s some disease of collective madness that infects a group. Before we look down on the Rwandans – or Germans – or Turks – or anyone else collectively, we need to remember that few of our countries or peoples haven’t committed injustices to others (certainly my country has); and if as individuals we are sure that we would never commit such atrocities – well, can anyone who hasn’t been guilty of cruelty to a cockroach, for example, ever be certain of that? All of us are guilty if we knew what was happening in a ‘faraway African country’ and didn’t care.
Nowadays, Rwanda is doing quite well economically, and is even very progressive in some respects (banning plastic bags and percentage of women in parliament). An astonishing number of victims have even forgiven their tormentors. It has come at the price of putting a blanket over much of what happened. Nowadays, officially, people can’t call themselves Tutsi or Hutu.
I can’t imagine what it must be like every day to see someone who murdered the whole rest of your family walking the streets. I can’t blame any country for deciding that, when a choice has to be made, reconciliation or at least peace is preferable to justice, but I wish we could have both – not only due process for those who ordered the crimes, but also for the torturers, the people with the machetes, and the bureaucrats.
GATORE, Gilbert (1981 – ),The Past Ahead, translated from French by Marjolijn de Jager, Global African Voices, Bloomington & Indianapolis, Indiana University Press, 2012, ISBN 9780253006660
(Originally published as Le passé devant soi, Paris, Editions Phébus, 2008)
Cupcake adjusted the bindings of her skate skis with a focused fury. Steve was dead. Eight seasons she had spent on the ice, and risk of injury and death had always ridden beside her like a passenger who never speaks until it is too late, but this death had ‘wrong’ written all over it. She had been in McMurdo during the helicopter crash of 2003, and that was bad enough, even though no one died. And then there was that pestilent journalist a year ago. Hardly anyone knew him, but still his death had cut everyone to the quick. But a coworker? Dying like that? And through malice?
Here’s one out of the box (or the freezer?), a crime thriller set in Antarctica. Of course Antarctica has no permanent population, countries or even universally recognised territories, but people have been born there (unfortunately, no authors yet, I assume, although I can’t read Emperor Penguin) and one or two people who have lived there have written books – including this novel.
Its heroine, like the author (who visited Antarctica for obviously extensive research), is a geologist, which helps her to solve the crimes. No sooner has she flown in to McMurdo station than she learns that her boss has already been arrested on suspicion of a murder he apparently hadn’t committed, and flown off the continent, and that she could be also removed at any time (luckily for her, passages out can’t be arranged that quickly).
Some might find the amount of detail on Antarctic life, the environment and the science excessive and just want the story. I couldn’t imagine many thrillers spending much time on the characters getting dressed (an involved and life-saving procedure down there). But as for me, I totally loved all this detail, which was exactly what I was looking for. It feels very authentic and I felt that I really got to know the environment and the circumstances in which the scientists (’beakers’) and support staff live and work. And as an inveterate word collector I managed to acquire a small Antarctic vocabulary (a ‘fingie’ is a new arrival). The character was likeable and authentic (perhaps excepting her James Bond-like ability to drive anything on wheels – or tracks – at the drop of a hat!)
A few minor quibbles – the editing falls into a crevasse once or twice, and I can’t imagine these rough people not swearing a lot! The accent given to the Australian character was terrible, maybe closer to Scottish.
In Cold Pursuit is sadly out of print. I totally enjoyed it, also as a change from the fairly heavy classics and world novels I’ve been reading lately. Thanks to the Wollondilly Library (southwest of Sydney) and our wonderful inter-library loans librarian Anne for chasing down the copy for me.
ANDREWS, Sarah, In Cold Pursuit, New York, St Martin’s Press, 2007, ISBN 0-312-34253-5
But Priest’s blood is on my hands and under my fingernails, and his cord has been severed. I told myself that those cords would be cut by me or another. It didn’t matter who, because it was going to happen. We are mere instruments of fate, we soldiers. All those people were shot and would have been shot and we were the walking, running, screaming dead, but it matters that I killed them. The cup must be passed and the poison must be drunk, but that doesn’t mean you have to drink it. The cup was in my hands and I could have cast it back in their faces and died. That would have been better. Oh God, that would have been better. But I drank it. And I passed it and I took the communion of devils. What kind of God would listen to my prayers? Not in this field, not among the blood of devils. I have lived. I have been spared. There’s still time to escape.
We have all heard of countries terrorised and traumatised by the nightmarish, upside-down world of child soldiers, but to experience what it is like in reality – and to be one – you must read this book. Beneath the Darkening Sky covers many of the same ugly themes that we have seen (e.g. in Cambodia) and will see again in some other countries, but like them turns them into compulsive reading through the beautiful language of great literature.
South Sudan became the world’s newest country but has had little peace or good news even since then. The interminable (civil) war of this Christian/Animist south, with the oil resources, against northern, Muslim, Sudan for independence both devastated the land and prevented any development. But no sooner did it finally win freedom than the various ethnic groups started fighting among themselves.
The author was nine when rebel soldiers attacked his village and kidnapped all the children taller than an AK47 to become child soldiers. Tulba was an inch shorter; he eventually fled the country to live in Australia. But he wrote this brilliant first novel of what might have happened to him if fate had made him an inch taller.
Like the Khmer Rouge for example, the rebels claim to be creating Utopia but actually make only hell on earth. Obinna’s new life is a daily nightmare interspersed with dreaming. It is soaked in casual, self-defeating brutality. The most mercy people can expect (like his friend Priest, in the quote above) is a quick death. Obinna grows down, instead of up.
Among other horrors, the boys are used by the cowardly soldiers to walk in front of them through minefields. When one of them does step on a mine, the scene is described in movie-like slow motion (which felt like watching a crash test dummy flailing about in a car).
Like any great novel about a horrible time (similarly to In the Shadow of the Banyan, for Cambodia), the tragedy is not unrelieved. I found the fake ambush especially funny.
Traumatising as it is, I highly recommend this novel. It is narrated in short staccato sentences like machine gun fire. I can’t wait to read his second book, “When Elephants Fight”, and hope Tulba will be able to write more books.
While I was reading this, there was a documentary series on the Vietnam War on TV. I was struck by what one American Vietnam veteran said: “I only killed one person in Vietnam; the rest were objects.” This novel gives a devastating portrayal of the desensitisation of the killers, of the deadening, dehumanising objectification of death. As Obinna says: “They don’t get to choose to live and I don’t get to choose to kill”.
TULBA, Majok, Beneath the Darkening Sky, London, Oneworld, 2013 (first published by Penguin Australia, 2012), ISBN 978-1-78074-241-0