“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.

“The Return of the Soldier”: The truth’s the truth

This is my review of   “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.

Check-point by Jean-Christophe Rufin – To fight or to survive?


This is my review of Check-point by Jean-Christophe Rufin

Unsure what course to pursue, Maud is certain only of her need to avoid a conventional lifestyle and to conceal any sexual attraction beneath baggy clothes and unflattering glasses. She has joined a group of four men on a mission to transport two lorry-loads of aid to civilian victims of the war in Bosnia. Her colleagues are a diverse bunch: the pot-smoking Lionel, ill-equipped to lead the group; Alex and Marc, two ex-soldiers with experience of fighting round Krajina, their destination in Bosnia; finally, the morose middle-aged Vauthier, older than the others. The one thing these men share in common seems to be a mutual suspicion, justified in that each has a different ulterior motive for the journey. Apart from their hostility, the main source of tension is at first the succession of checkpoints which they have to cross, never quite sure what reception they will receive from soldiers who may be Serb, Croat or Bosnian Muslim – to explain their purpose, Lionel relies on repeating “pomoć”, the Bosnian for “help”.

As the plot builds up to a dramatic crescendo, with vivid descriptions of the snow-covered landscapes through which they labour, the author uses the conflict within the group as a microcosm for the destructive futile struggle in Bosnia. He develops their characters to show them wrestling with shifting emotions. Since Rufin is well-known for his international humanitarian work, it is not surprising that he also weaves in ethical debates over the pros and cons of giving aid, and the causes and effects of war. He is interested in the “mental frontiers” which have to be crossed as well as the physical checkpoints. In transporting aid, are people just salving their consciences? What do “victims” really need – to fight or to survive? How much point is there in providing food and clothing to keep them warm, when what they really want are weapons to fight the enemy, even at the risk of sacrificing their lives? Yet providing arms only feeds violence, and who is to decide on what side justice lies? Why do different groups hate each other so much?

Rufin’s novels seem quite varied in their settings and plots, but all that I have read show him to be a good storyteller, particularly in this case when he keeps the plot tight and clear. As might be expected from a writer so concerned with morality, villains seem to get their just desserts, but he does not seek to conceal the human shortcomings of the rest of the group.

My only criticism is of the rather patronising epilogue which tells us what we are supposed to make of the novel, rather than let us deduce it for ourselves, no doubt each drawing something different from it. The main point of interest in the epilogue is that the story was inspired by the author’s visit to Krajina, where he happened to note that a Bosnian refugee girl had clearly fallen in love with the young French UN soldier who was helping to protect her. I also thought that, although Rufin explores Maud’s conflicting thoughts effectively, he also shows her slipping into slightly stereotyped “female behaviour”, which I have noticed in some of his other work, but this is a small point.

Highly recommended overall.

Checkpoint by Jean-Christopher Rufin – To fight or to survive?

This is my review of  Checkpoint by Jean-Christophe Rufin

Unsure what course to pursue, Maud is certain only of her need to avoid a conventional lifestyle and to conceal any sexual attraction beneath baggy clothes and unflattering glasses. She has joined a group of four men on a mission to transport two lorry-loads of aid to civilian victims of the war in Bosnia. Her colleagues are a diverse bunch: the pot-smoking Lionel, ill-equipped to lead the group; Alex and Marc, two ex-soldiers with experience of fighting round Krajina, their destination in Bosnia; finally, the morose middle-aged Vauthier, older than the others. The one thing these men share in common seems to be a mutual suspicion, justified in that each has a different ulterior motive for the journey. Apart from their hostility, the main source of tension is at first the succession of checkpoints which they have to cross, never quite sure what reception they will receive from soldiers who may be Serb, Croat or Bosnian Muslim – to explain their purpose, Lionel relies on repeating “pomoć”, the Bosnian for “help”.

As the plot builds up to a dramatic crescendo, with vivid descriptions of the snow-covered landscapes through which they labour, the author uses the conflict within the group as a microcosm for the destructive futile struggle in Bosnia. He develops their characters to show them wrestling with shifting emotions. Since Rufin is well-known for his international humanitarian work, it is not surprising that he also weaves in ethical debates over the pros and cons of giving aid, and the causes and effects of war. He is interested in the “mental frontiers” which have to be crossed as well as the physical checkpoints. In transporting aid, are people just salving their consciences? What do “victims” really need – to fight or to survive? How much point is there in providing food and clothing to keep them warm, when what they really want are weapons to fight the enemy, even at the risk of sacrificing their lives? Yet providing arms only feeds violence, and who is to decide on what side justice lies? Why do different groups hate each other so much?

Rufin’s novels seem quite varied in their settings and plots, but all that I have read show him to be a good storyteller, particularly in this case when he keeps the plot tight and clear. As might be expected from a writer so concerned with morality, villains seem to get their just desserts, but he does not seek to conceal the human shortcomings of the rest of the group.

My only criticism is of the rather patronising epilogue which tells us what we are supposed to make of the novel, rather than let us deduce it for ourselves, no doubt each drawing something different from it. The main point of interest in the epilogue is that the story was inspired by the author’s visit to Krajina, where he happened to note that a Bosnian refugee girl had clearly fallen in love with the young French UN soldier who was helping to protect her. I also thought that, although Rufin explores Maud’s conflicting thoughts effectively, he also shows her slipping into slightly stereotyped “female behaviour”, which I have noticed in some of his other work, but this is a small point.

Highly recommended overall.