Ulysse from Bagdad: Rendez-vous with nowhere

 

This is my review of  Ulysse from Bagdad by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt.

When a relative is tortured for no reason by Saddam Hussein’s henchmen, teenager Saad Saad decides to become a rebel on the basis that if he is to be punished one day, it might as well be for a cause. On learning this, his eccentric librarian father introduces him to the store of “subversive” banned books he has hidden away rather than destroy as instructed. Following the violent deaths of his father and three brothers-in-law, Saad Saad abandons his law studies to support his family, until his mother orders him to travel abroad to earn enough money to keep them. So begins his Odyssey of trials and tribulations from Baghdad to his goal of London, loosely modelled on the voyage of Odysseus or Ulysses, with heroin-guzzling companions in the role of “Lotus eaters”, a one-eyed jailor for a Cyclops, a deafening heavy metal girl pop band for Sirens, the blonde Sicilian who, Circe-like, might just deflect and so on, the difference being that Ulysses was travelling away from war to reach home, whereas Saad Saad is obliged to leave his war-torn country to build a new life in an alien land.

Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt is one of the most widely read French writers in the world. A graduate in philosophy, he has a talent for applying this in popular terms to a variety of moral themes of current concern. I admire Schmitt’s skill as a wordsmith, no pun intended, and the quirky originality of his short stories in “Concerto à la mémoire d’un ange”, but here, in employing black farce to ease the bleakness of the theme of illegal migration into Europe, he has strayed too far into absurdity for my taste. An example of this is the dead father’s tendency to pop up at odd moments to deliver jocular homilies and wisecracks to his son. When the two hydrophobic natives of landlocked Iraq have to cross the Red Sea, the father relies on the spirit world to get him across, while Saad Saad resorts to demanding a massive dose of the heroin he has previously rejected to get himself to the far shore.

The author is apparently widely used for teaching texts in schools and colleges, and I agree that this novel could be an effective way of introducing teenagers to the moral dilemmas posed by the pressures for modern mass migration. Even what Schmitt fails to cover could be brought into the analysis. As it is, his focus seems to be on the artificial nature of current boundaries, the dangers of the nationalism they tend to create, the debt which the wealthy West owes the poorer countries it has exploited. The over-arching case for migration is found in the prologue and repeated continually, namely “the lottery of birth” which dictates whether one is born into peace, prosperity and opportunity or the reverse. At no point does the author consider the conundrum of how to implement controls on migration to prevent the destruction of the stable culture which draws people in the first place. The nearest he gets to questioning migration is the portrayal of the kind of London district in which a migrant is likely to end up: an overcrowded room with a view of wet, black chimneys coated in greasy pollution , surrounded by sex shops, smelly dustbins and vomit outside pubs.

The book strikes me as somewhat formulaic and contrived, in that it strings together, admittedly with some imaginative flair, widely known facts about the state of Iraq or the ruses and perils migration. So we have the toppling of Saddam’s statue, the attempt to escape from the country via a fundamentalist band or shipping stolen artifacts, the ploy of losing one’s papers, the frustrating limbo of the refugee camps and ordeal of overloaded boats in stormy seas.
Most of the characters are caricatures, implausible, like the father, or two-dimensional as in Saad’s sketchily drawn relationship with Leila. Too often, the players express their ideas in a kind of condensed rant. Saad appears to be a vehicle for the author’s ideas and wit: his “voice” is too westernised and objective in lines of thought and observations , perhaps because Saad has read so many “subversive” foreign books.“Ulysse from Bagdad

Chanson Douce or Lullaby by Leila Slimani – nanny state


This is my review of   Chanson Douce“Lullaby” in its English translation) by Leila Slimani Ground down by motherhood, despite loving her two small children, Myriam eagerly accepts a former colleague’s offer of a high-flying position in his law form. The problem of finding a suitable nanny is easily resolved in the form of Louise, who not only forms an immediate bond with the children but proves a superb cook, even producing delicious dinner parties for the envious friends of Myriam and her husband Paul,  also bringing order to their Paris apartment with her efficient juggling of laundry, cleaning and tidying up.

We know that this C21 Mary Poppins is too good to be true, since it is no “spoiler” to reveal the opening chapter, in which the two children are found dead or dying, having been stabbed by  Louise before turning the knife on herself.  If one can get past this harrowing debut, the novel is an absorbing psychological “whydunnit”, which explores the chain of events leading to Louise’s mental disintegration,  even enabling us to feel some sympathy for her in the process.

This gruesome theme is apparently triggered by real events: a Dominican nanny’s brutal murder of her charges in New York plus the author’s own memories of her parents worrying that a nanny had insinuated herself into their family to an alarming degree. As a former journalist, Leila Slimani clearly likes to base her novels on real events, and the comparisons made between Chanson Douce  (meaning Lullaby) and Gone Girl in terms of a shocking, drip-feed page-turner suggest that she has an eye for a money-spinning yarn.

Yet, this novel also has deeper underlying themes which I found of greater interest than the perhaps stereotyped portrait of a growing psychosis. There is  the examination of the tensions involved in how many couples with children find themselves living now. The nightmarish scenario is rooted in the guilt felt by many professional women over their attempts to combine a career with a family, in the face of the disapproval  often expressed by older women – parents and school teachers, who  perhaps having stifled their own aspirations to devote themselves to their offspring suggest that being raised by a string of nannies, subjected to after-school clubs and channelled into “quality time” may damage a child’s emotional development.

Another thought-provoking  aspect of the book is the plight of the nannies themselves,  effectively working class servants in a middle class home, often young immigrants coping with an unfamiliar culture. The relationships exist in a precarious balance which may  be upset by too much playing at friendly equality on the part of the employers, to be clumsily retracted if the nanny’s  care suddenly conflicts with their attitudes and values  – as in the case of Louise inadvertently enraging Paul by making up his little daughter to look like a tart in his estimation. Often, the nannies’ personal problems are of no interest to their employers, frankly an irritation if these get in the way of their work. Only when it is  too late does an unexpected sighting of Louise arouse in Myriam for the first time an intense curiosity as to what she does when she is not with the family.

Although I understand why this is a best-seller, the failure to portray the parents’ reactions following the tragedy seems an omission.  I was disappointed by the weak, abrupt ending, as if the author did not know how to conclude it.

“Les Sauvages” – The Savages

This is my review of      by Sabri Louatah.“Les Sauvages” (The Savages in Translation)

Fatherless cousins Krim and Slim are off the rails in Book 1 of Sabri Louatah’s black farce, a four part saga of the French Algerian Nerrouche family of Kabyle origin – be prepared to look things up to get the most out of this novel. The focus is on Slim’s traditionally flamboyant wedding into a somewhat contemptuous Arab family. It is not explained how this union came about, although I may have missed this, and a good deal more, through reading it in French. In scenes peppered with untranslated Kabyle phrases, Wollah! Allouar!, the family members seem blind to the plight of gay Slim, plagued by a transvestite Romanian gypsy lover.

Krim, who is the main character if one is to be found in the meandering plot as it deviates down apparent cul-de-sacs, which may of course become relevant in a future sequel, is permanently stoned, a casual thief, who has fallen under the control of a sinister fundamentalist cousin, Nazir. His menace is perhaps strengthened because he remains an obscure figure throughout, but the narrative would be more coherent if we were gradually fed more about him and the reasons for the break-down in relations with his charming, westernised brother Fouad.

In a blend of real-life characters with fiction, the wedding takes place against the background of a ground-breaking election which is gripping the public, for Nicolas Sarkozy seems likely to be beaten by the first Arab to become President of France, namely the charismatic Chaouch. Native French voters are not the only ones to be apprehensive or aghast. Although wildly popular with those of Arab origin, Chaouch is clearly anathema to some Islamic groups.

The decision to have the book’s action take place over the course of the wedding seems an unnecessary straitjacket. It could be argued to increase the tension, but in fact makes for a sense of disjointed confusion, with chapters digressing into unlikely, even ludicrous interludes as characters leave the ceremony, or indulge in lengthy contrived conversations to “set the scene”.

The author’s first-hand knowledge of Kabyle culture creates a sense of authenticity and his love of American series like ER gives a filmic, televisual feel to “Les Sauvages” which some may enjoy. However, I was initially worn down by the tedium of indigestible exposition and the plethora of stereotyped rather than three dimensional characters, often with confusingly similar names (Farid, Farés, Fouad etcetera).

Krim comes the closest to arousing some sense of engagement and empathy, despite his actions: he is clearly musical, appreciates the traditional singing of Lounis Ait Menguellet (which can be heard on YouTube) and has genuine feeling for his extended family. But perhaps the sense that he has been “driven mad” by some yet-to-be explained situation, rather than “become bad”, could have been implied more clearly yet subtly. When genuine feeling is shown between characters, it is too often sentimental and corny, as in the affectionate scene between Chaouch and his glamorous wife.

The plot gathers momentum if not plausibility towards the end, but for the most part seems out of kilter, with too much time spent on “minor” characters and events for which the circumstances are unclear. The novel has a raw energy, but I wonder how much time the author spent on refining it. There are plenty of ingredients for an impressive novel, but that would have been much harder to craft. I find Houellebecq’s novel about an Arab French President superior, partly because it is better written, but am I being a literary snob and does it lack the vitality of “Les Sauvages”?

Television-series style, the ending leaves multiple loose threads for the sequel which I may read, if only because it appears to have a tauter structure.

“Now we shall be entirely free”

This is my review of  “Now we shall be entirely free”   by Andrew Miller.

After the disorderly flight of the British from Napoleon’s soldiers in the 1809 Battle of Corunna, Captain John Lacroix is accused in his absence of involvement in atrocities against some Spanish villagers. Shipped back to his Somerset home in a state of collapse, he proves understandably reluctant to discuss the disastrous war, or to return to active service. His decision to take a trip to the remote Hebrides makes more sense when it becomes clear that the sadistic psychopath Corporal Calley has been despatched to execute him, with the urbane Spaniard Medina in tow to check that summary justice is served without any embarrassing publicity.

The author apparently wanted to write the kind of adventure yarn he loved as a boy, but in fact the precise “genre” of this historical novel is hard to define: it settles fairly quickly into the familiar pattern of chapters alternating between pursuer and pursued, with some moments of high tension fed by coincidence, but is also a psychological drama with a somewhat dream-like quality in its focus on the two introspective characters, Lacroix and Medina, who meander passively through an absurd world of beauty, brutality, fate and culpability.

Since Andrew Miller managed to make a gripping tale out of the removal of an C18 Parisian cemetery in his prize-winning novel “Pure”, and seems to offer a promising plot in this highly praised novel, perhaps my expectations were too high at the outset. The minor errors of detail spotted by some readers did not bother me. I was more concerned that the storyline seems padded out at times with wordy descriptions of banal activities, which one could of course argue adds to a sense of authenticity. This point is countered by the fact that many incidents appear unconvincing, even implausible.

Although the Hebridean island where Lacroix finds refuge and love is probably an amalgam of several actual ones, maps and notes on the background history would have been useful, but perhaps the whole point is that this is a novel claiming artistic licence rather than historical and factual accuracy. For much of the book, I felt quite unengaged, too aware of the repetition of words, and overuse of brackets for asides the author could not resist making, but did not wish to spend time weaving into the text. The much-admired examples of poetic prose also often seemed to me to strike an artificial, contrived note, although I was amused by the occasional touches of humour which leaven what is in many ways a sombre tale.

What kept me reading was the desire to find out what lay in store for Lacroix, and the extent to which he was guilty. The ending disappointed me, but perhaps its ambiguity serves to leave one speculating to what extent Lacroix felt, rightly or not, that he deserved to be punished, and the degree to which this may have upset his mental balance.

I am left with a sense of ambivalence, being unable to decide whether I have failed to grasp this book’s imaginative power, or am justified in the assessment that it could have been done better.

“The Return of the Soldier” – When ignorance is bliss?

This is my review of the The Return of the Soldier   by Rebecca West.

First published in 1918, this novella is narrated by Jenny whose cousin and childhood playmate Chris is fighting in the trenches of WW1. Even if fully aware of the sexual nature of her love for him, she accepts that it will never be returned as she spends her days living in the family home with Chris’s beautiful but apparently shallow and materialistic wife Kitty. This may also be an assessment distorted by unconscious jealousy. Kitty has spent a fortune refurbishing the house and garden along tasteful modern lines, perhaps at least in part as a distraction from her husband’s absence and the recent tragic death of their three-year-old son.

The two women are appalled to learn not only that Chris has been invalided out of active service with amnesia, but that he remembers nothing of the last fifteen years of his adult life, including his marriage, being fixated instead on a youthful love affair with Margaret Allington, of whose existence both Kitty and Jenny are totally unaware. When Margaret proves to be a frumpy married women, with no dress sense and “horrible” hands seamed and reddened with housework, the two products of a genteel, snobbish Edwardian world imagine that it will not be difficult to wean Chris away from her. The more perceptive and empathic Jenny soon realises that it may have been Margaret’s inner, mental qualities which so attracted Chris.

Beneath the ensuing envy and resentment lies the essential dilemma. Is it better to humour Chris, and let him live happily in a false situation, free from adult responsibility, or must a way be found to “cure him”, which means bringing him to face the truth, with all which that entails.

The celebrated feminist novelist and journalist Rebecca West was neither deluding herself, nor being unduly immodest, in describing this her first novel, written in her early twenties as “rather good”. Well-written and skilfully constructed, down to the ambiguous title, it has a strong sense of place and unflinching dissection of human nature, particularly of women. A C21 reader may find it dated, and feel uneasy about the snobbery which may at times be unconscious on the author’s part, although her family knew financial hardship so she understood what it was like to be poor.

However, it is gives an interesting insight with an authentic ring as to how people thought a hundred years ago, and the different social constraints of the day imposed on them. Some of the descriptions of the area round Monkey Island near Bray on the Thames are very vivid and evocative of an area before it was engulfed by urban sprawl, and the pollution from mass car ownership and Heathrow Airport.

This is the kind of book one reads quickly to see what happens, then again more slowly to appreciate the quality of the descriptions, and the deeper layers of the story, such as the author’s anger over the futile damage caused by war and the complacency of those who expect others to fight it.

“Les Déferlantes”, or “The Breakers”: all at sea

Also know in English translation as “The Breakers”, this is my review of  “Les Déferlantes” by Claudie Gallay

This is a slow-burning tale, partly the gradual revelation of a guilty secret, partly a psychological study of how members of a remote and close-knit community deal with grief and loss.

Haunted by memories of her dead partner, the narrator, whose name we never learn apart from the nickname of “La Ténébreuse” (translated as Blue!), makes the questionable decision to take a two year sabbatical (is such a luxury available in France?) from her job as biology lecturer in Avignon in order to monitor birdlife on the rocky Normandy coast of La Hague, west of Cherbourg. She finds herself tolerated but inevitably an outsider, observing the life of an isolated, inward-looking community in which almost everyone seems to be damaged in some way, sad or a little mad.

So we are introduced to her housemates, the blowsily beautiful waitress Morgane, inseparable from her pet rat, filled with Walter Mitty dreams of escape and her brother, the driven artist Raphaël, who bars the door when at work on the tortured figures of his sculptures. Then there are Morgane’s infatuated admirers, the autistic Max, obsessed with words, and the dapper Monsieur Anselme with his pet tortoises all named Chélone after the young women who refused to attend the marriage of Jupiter and Juno, another hint at the possible incest between Morgane and Raphaël. The deranged elderly Nan haunts the shore, apparently driven insane by memories of seeing her family drowned when their boat capsizes.

Perhaps the most “normal” figure is the overworked manageress of the local inn, who has to care for her senile mother. Why are the two women so estranged from Lili’s father Theo, the former lighthouse keeper, with whom the narrator forms a bond because of their common love of the birds?

Into this odd world comes Lambert, who left the village four decades earlier following the tragic loss at sea during a storm of his parents and infant brother Paul. Convinced that this was not an accident, he is intent on worming out the truth.

La Hague is the home territory of the celebrated writer Prévert, whom the author seems to honour through imitation in her deceptively simple yet poetic style. She employs this very effectively to create a strong sense of place: the changing colours, light and moods of the sea merging with the wide sky; the nesting birds wheeling round the rocky cliffs, and the continuous hypnotic presence of the “déferlantes”, the breaking waves.

Individuals are closely observed – one feels that the author has become a little obsessed with them, the characters in a soap opera she has conceived with a potentially endless flow of small scenes of their everyday life, punctuated with local legends. So, for instance, a chapter focus at random on the hare-lipped, fancifully named child La Cigogne playing with a present of a packet of crayons, drawing along a wall a line which is described in minute detail, like the thread of a spider’s web. The scene then moves abruptly to the heart-shaped leaves of the plant no one can name which secretes a thin layer of poison, so that the decaying bodies of unsuspecting flies, bees and butterflies pile up to nourish the soil in which they grow. This is a slightly weird novel which will engross some readers and bore others to death if it does not repel them first.

Although, at over five hundred pages, this seems at least a third too long, and I think it would have had more dramatic power if more ruthlessly edited, it is a distinctive, original and memorable novel which combines a potentially gripping mystery with skilfully captured observation of nature and human behaviour and some beautiful passages.

“Land of Mine” – more than a mere tale of thud and blunder.

This is my review of “Land of Mine”.

In the aftermath of World War 2, the Danes thought it just punishment for prisoners of war to be deployed defusing the thousands of mines buried in the coastal sand dunes by Germans to ward off any Allied invasion.

Initially, the embittered army Sergeant Rasmussen charged with supervising the POWs takes a sadistic pleasure in subjecting them to his capricious brutality. There is poignancy in the fact that the POWs are teenagers, virtually children drafted in at the end of the war to boost German numbers. These are clearly scapegoats: barely understanding what they have been fighting for, they can in no way be held responsible for the sins of the Third Reich.

Based on a true story, which suggests that it could have made a gripping documentary, the film is distinctive in creating an at times unbearable sense of tension, despite and in fact probably increased by the slow pace and agonising detail as we watch, time after time, the painstaking process of loosening and removing a large screw in the middle of the flat cylinder of the crude yet lethal object that is a mine. It is hard to imagine that this could explode at any moment with a shocking suddenness, and easy to see how, performing the same monotonous activity for hours on end, a young boy could lose concentration for a moment, his hand might shake, he might fail to hear a warning, with fatal consequences. Some people will find this film unwatchable, and I felt voyeuristic at times watching it and wondering who was about to be blown to smithereens.

It seemed to me that personal dramas (a twin who can no longer bear to live after his brother has been blown up, the crisis when a little girl who lives oddly close to the minefield strays onto it with her doll) had been inserted to “pad the film out” and create a framework for the tension that is at the heart of this, but these may have been based on research.

My only criticism of a visually striking and well-acted drama, is that I found it hard to distinguish the boys from each other at the outset, and understand some of the relationships between them which would have helped me to engage with them more fully.

Although we should not need to watch such films to sense the horror of war, “Land of Mine” made me aware of a piece of Danish history I had not appreciated, and of a moral dilemma in the aftermath of war which I had not considered. Perhaps more effort should have been made to identify leading Nazi prisoners to make reparations by defusing these mines.