“La Tresse ” or “The Braid” by Laetitia Colombiani: “saved by a hair’s breadth”

Like the three stands of a plait (ou tresse) the chapters focus in turn on three women who seem at first to have little in common apart from their sheer determination. A villager in Uttar Pradesh (India), Smita is a Dalit, member of the “Untouchable” cast which means that, like her mother before her, she must empty the toilets of higher caste neighbours, using the same wicker basket impregnated with the curse of its pungent odour. All that keeps her going is the dream of her small daughter Lalita breaking the vicious circle and escaping her fate by getting an education. The Brahmin teacher accepts the expected bribe to take her on, only to humiliate the little girl on the very first day. Incensed and defiant, disappointed by her husband’s refusal to leave his rut of rat-catching in the village, Smita chooses the dangerous course of travelling with Lalita to a relative in a distant city where the pair can start a new life.

The daughter of a Sicilian wig-maker in Palermo, Guilia is the only one of three sisters to take an active interest and work in the family business which she seems destined to take over in due course. Her carefree life is shattered when her robust, seemingly indestructible father is badly injured in a road accident which leaves him in a coma. Obliged to sort out some paperwork, she makes a shocking discovery. At the same time, perhaps susceptible in her grief, she embarks on an unlikely love affair.

Meanwhile in Canada, high-flying lawyer Sarah, twice married with three children largely absent from the scene because they are cared for by male nanny and factotum “Magic Ron”, takes pride in her success and is utterly confident in her sense of being in control. When confronted by a threat to her career which perhaps she should have foreseen, which cannot be managed and contained through sheer willpower, how will she cope?
This is easy to read and plot-driven, but the continual switching between apparently unconnected storylines is somewhat jarring, at the same time serving to increase suspense over how, if at all, they will converge at the end and masking a thinness in Guilia’s and Sarah’s tales. I would have found it a more satisfying read if presented as three separate short novellas, although I accept this would have weakened the “Eureka” moment of realising what links the three women. Smita’s tale seems to me the most fully developed and engaging, perhaps because there is a stronger sense of place and portrayal of a (to me) unfamiliar, distinctive culture as she travels towards her goal.

Since the author is a scriptwriter and film-maker, I assumed this novel was written from the outset with adaption to the screen in mind*. At a recent interview, the author was adamant this was not the case. This was partly because she wanted the freedom of not needing to think about the cost of, for instance, choosing specific widely distant locations. She acknowledged that her books are regarded as cinematographic, which she explained as meaning based on situations one can visualise, like Smita and her daughter travelling on an overcrowded train for the first time, rather than relying heavily on description of people or dialogues. On the other hand, perhaps because of the author’s scriptwriting background, the style is for me the weakest factor – by turns heavy on exposition, or unduly sentimental in tone. The strength of the stories lies in the dramatic incidents and changing emotions of the characters.

*At the time of writing this, both of her first two novels have been or are in the process of being filmed.

“Ru” by Kim Thuy: hypnotic memories in a waking dream

Born to a wealthy family during the 1968 Tet Offensive when the North Vietnamese communists launched their surprise attacks on the South during the Lunar New Year festivities, mingling machine gun fire with firecrackers, Kim Thuy has drawn on her own experiences to produce this fictionalised memoir. Half the family is home partitioned off with a brick wall to be taken over by communist soldiers who spy on them continuously. Their wealth in the form of diamonds inserted in the pink plastic of dental prosthetics, the narrator’s family joins the flood of boat people, passing via a muddy Malaysian camp to Canada which has extended a generous welcome to many Vietnamese refugees. Years later, as a naturalised Canadian, she is able to revisit her country of origin to reevaluate it from a westernised perspective.

At first, certain aspects of the evidently original and distinctive style irritated me. I felt somewhat cheated by the mainly one page chapters, often more than fifty per cent white space. The way they flitted back and forth in time made it hard to keep characters in mind and grasp the order of events. It is difficult to refer back to points quickly unless one is using a Kindle! I found it easier to read once I had accepted the novel as a series of anecdotes, often poetic, with a rhythmic, hypnotic quality, the white space encouraging a pause for reflection, the underlying aim being to mirror how memory works in fragmented, jumbled recollections.

“Ru”, a French word which can mean “Flow”, seems a more apt title than “Ru” in the sense of “Lullaby”, many memories being quite brutal or harrowing, mixed with beauty, humour or banality. This may render them all the more shocking, in seeming unreal while manifestly true. For instance, Mr. An, met in Canada, is still traumatised by the Russian roulette played by the Communist soldiers, causing him to observe for the first time the varied shades of blue in the sky he thought he was seeing for the last time. The narrator’s objectivity in describing such things is a way of coping with suffering and loss. Yet is it also at the price of making the reader feel too disengaged as well?

Despite their brevity, the paragraphs need to be read slowly, with concentration, because they are so full of images which evoke yet further ones. Each reader will draw something different from the myriad of impressions. Perhaps because they give insights into a different culture, I found the passages on Vietnam the most striking and moving – the nostalgic image of a past tradition, in which old ladies in a boat on a small lake place tea leaves in lotus flowers for them to absorb their scent during the night.

Then there is Aunt Five (the Vietnamese name their family members by number), a spinster who has dedicated her life to her parents. Rewarded after their death by being driven out of the house, she takes refuge in a hut near a Buddhist temple, virtually her sole possession being the four bowls in which she gave her old father his daily rice. These blue and white bowls with silver rims, partly translucent when held up to the sunlight, are a symbol of a lost way of life.

There is subtlety in the anecdote of the refugee boys machining clothes in a Quebec garage after school to earn some pocket money, who recall the dark period in Vietnam when they were abused by men in for the price of a bowl of soup. Yet their ability to maintain a kind of innocence, divorced from the sordid deeds of adults, and become balanced young men, Canadian engineers, is an affirmation of human resilience.

Kim Thuy evokes our empathy with the refugees, and a sense of how having been uprooted from one culture, they inevitably retain a nostalgia for certain aspects of it, some fated to occupy a kind of limbo, unable to shed a sense of disconnection from the host country, no matter how well they appear to have integrated into it: “one horizon always conceals another…… one advances through life in the footsteps of those who have gone before, in a kind of waking dream”.

“My Childhood” by Maxim Gorky: staying humane in a barbarous world

Gorky as a child with his father

When his young father dies of cholera, and his mother Varvara has a miscarriage, no doubt triggered by grief, five-year-old Alexei is taken back to her family home: “Angry people rushed about in all directions like passengers about to disembark from a ship, ragged children swarmed all over the place like thieving sparrows, and the whole house was filled with a strange pungent smell”. This is his introduction to the house-cum-dyeworks presided over by his grandfather, a self-made man who flogs him for minor acts of mischief, sometimes to the point of losing consciousness, through a mixture of sadism and the genuine twisted belief that it will “do him good”. Recognising his intelligence, Grandfather also teaches him to read, tells him stories, works with him companionably in the garden, yet ultimately casts him out to make his way in a harsh world when he is still a child.

By contrast, his peasant grandmother, despite showing great presence of mind in a crisis, for the most part escapes harsh reality through a mixture of snuff, vodka, veneration of bejewelled icons and folk tales which stimulate his vivid imagination, also showing him the affection he needs for emotional support.

This account of Gorky’s childhood is so bleak in some respects that I could usually only manage to read a chapter at a time. Yet I also found it compelling in his ability to capture how an observant, inquisitive child, with a rudimentary sense of justice presumably gained from his kindly father, continuously tries to make sense of the world. Often, we cannot quite grasp what is going on because he cannot do so. Only gradually does he piece together the grim backstory of the dysfunctional Kashirin family.

Yet in the midst of a childhood often made tedious and unhappy, either by poverty or the oppression of adults who have themselves been warped by hardship or a lack of love, Gorky manages to show us the moments of unexpected beauty in a grim existence: “watching the black crows circling and wheeling in the red evening sky round the golden cupolas of the Church…diving down to earth and draping the fading sky with a black net”. There is also “the new kind of life, entertaining beyond description” which comes alive in the kitchen when Grandfather has gone to the Sunday evening service: races on the table between cockroaches harnessed to paper runners, followed by the “uninhibited but strange gaiety” of the songs and dancing contrasting with guitar laments, all fuelled by vodka as the samovar “softly hummed.”

We see a future writer’s continual fascination in the variety of people he meets – the long-suffering workers who slave for Grandfather; the motley crew of lodgers in the “large, interesting house” over a tavern which the old man buys when he retires; when poverty strikes, the wily band of urchins whom Alexei eventually joins in stealing wood – “wasn’t considered a sin”, to help their families. Most of these characters are a complex mix of good and bad. The few who seem completely beyond the pale belong to his mother’s family the Kashirins, namely the two warring uncles, Mikhail and Yakov, each desperate to get one over the other in extracting enough money from Grandfather to set up an independent dyeworks, but too incompetent to succeed.

My Childhood (Illustrated) by [Maxim Gorky]

“When I try to recall those vile abominations of that barbarous life in Russia, at times I find myself asking the question: is it worth while recording them” He answers for himself in the affirmative. Firstly, it is necessary to understand and face up to the truth, in order to be able to erase it in the future. Secondly, he is confident that life will always surprise us by the creative human powers of goodness that are for ever forcing their way up through “the bestial refuse”, awakening our “indestructible faith” in a better and more humane future.

This may appear over-optimistic and undermined by the lack of corruption and democracy still all to evident in Russia as I write this. Ironically, having been proclaimed the father of Soviet Literature, Gorky died in 1936 from poisoning at the instigation of his political enemies, unlike the modern dissident Navalny who survived Novichok poisoning.

“All for Nothing” by Walter Kempowski: Beyond Understanding

The Georgenhof manor house on the road to the Prussian border with Russia is falling into disrepair in the final stages of World War 2. Owner Erhard Von Globig is serving in Italy while his beautiful wife Katharina, whose dreamy vagueness, “it was all so complicated”, may be an inward escape from an unhappy marriage and the tedium of life in a rural backwater, leaves all the work to a handful of foreign servants escaped from the east, under the control of bossy spinster “Auntie”. Katharina’s inquisitive twelve-year old son Peter (probably modelled on the author himself) conveniently avoids co-option into the Hitler Youth by reason of a persistent bad throat.

With a gradual flow of refugee carts travelling from the east and rumours of a vengeful Russian invasion as Hitler loses his grip, Auntie packs a suitcase and shrewd Polish farmhand Vladimir stows items on a large cart, but that is as far as any plans get for the journey to the relative safety of “the Reich” while there is still time. A mixture of inertia, nostalgic attachment to unnecessary possessions and lack of imagination over just how bad life could become, keeps them chained to their familiar routine. And, after all, where would they go? What could they bear to leave behind?

Even when Drygalski, the bigoted deputy mayor of the local housing estate, succeeds in billeting refugee families at the Georgenhof, the Von Globigs are happy to receive them almost as a form of home entertainment. Eventually, with the refugee flight increased to a flood, sounds of gunfire and ominous lights in the eastern sky, the decision is made to leave. Yet this is too late to prevent a fateful and shameful incident. Also, despite the semblance of orderly flight with provision of soup kitchens and strict guidelines for crossing the ice on the shortcut route to safety, the imminent collapse into chaos of a defeated society seems inevitable.

An unathletic teenager during World War 2, author Walter Kempowski found it hard to accept the discipline of compulsory service under the Hitler Youth to the extent that he was transferred to a penal unit – it seems his main crime was a love of “degenerate” jazz – and later drafted as a courier into the youth branch of the Luftwaffe. His father, killed in action at the end of the war after five years of combat, owned one of the ships deployed to shuttle thousands of refugee Germans from Prussia across to Rostok where the Kempowskis lived. The teenager observed the flight in which some 300,000 people starved, froze or drowned to death or were killed by the Russians.

Found guilty by the occupying Soviets of collaboration because of his work for the American Army of Occupation, Kempowski received a 25 year sentence, but was released after 8 years and deported to the west.
His ten volume “Echolot”, “Echo Soundings” is a “collective diary” of firsthand accounts, diaries, letters, and memoirs of those who live through the war. Added to his own experiences, all this has culminated in “All For Nothing” , a wrily cynical fictionalised observation of events which shocks the reader through the unflinching objectivity which reduces both “normal daily life” and the horrors of war for civilians to the same level of banality. It was his last novel, published in 2006, sixty years after the events they describe and only a year before his death.

The author reveals human flaws in all his characters in an approach based on “personal relativism”, the theory that that there are no absolute truths, so that an individual’s morality is defined by one’s particular perspective on life, inevitably conditioned by culture, which some will blindly accept, such as, in this case, unquestioning antisemitism or conformity to “the rules”, but others kick against. Katharina Von Globig seems to rise above the enforced prejudices and regulations by swimming with the foreign maids (while exploiting them as cheap labour), listening to enemy radio channels and harbouring a Jew on the run, but does she do this out of liberal principles, or because she lives too much in a world of her own to care? Drygalski, caricature of a trumped-up Nazi bigot, exercises his petty power to make life hard for his over-privileged neighbours, yet at the end he behaves out of character in what seems like a selfless act – but is it really so?

This novel lingers in one’s thoughts, reminding me of Irene Nemirovsky’s “Suite Française”. A bestseller in Germany where it struck a chord with a nation coming to terms with and seeking to understand a guilty past, I wonder to what extent it has suffered from translation into English. There is a repetitive, slightly “children’s storybook” turn of phrase which jarred on me, and I am unsure whether this due to choices made by Anthea Bell, the award-winning translator whose work happens to have included a good deal of children’s literature. Yet Kempowski undeniably repeats small details like a mantra – Katharina’s admirer Lothar Sarkander is rarely mentioned without his “stiff leg and duelling scars on his cheeks”. Some passages prove a bit tedious, like the initial sequence of eccentric visitors casually accepted by the family as a kind of entertainment, although there is black humour in the political economist dabbing black paint on every image of Hitler in Peter’s stamp collection – “Suppose a Russian opens the album and sees the Fuhrer grinning…?”

La Daronne or The Godmother by Hannelore Cayre: “The sins of the fathers”

Widowed young, now in her fifties, the misnamed narrator Patience finds that her work as an Arab interpreter/translator for the Paris judiciary does not pay enough to cover the care home costs for her demanding aged mother. Listening to the recorded conversations of suspected Arab drug dealers under police surveillance, her imagination is caught by a close-knit Moroccan family who have switched from legal farming to growing high grade khardala, or hashish, and when she knows that a stash of this has been hidden to evade near Paris to evade a police search, temptation proves too great.

Can she find the precise location of the drug, aided by DNA (ADN in the original French), a retired police sniffer dog she has saved from the standard fate of euthanasia when no longer useful? Will she succeed in selling the drug on and laundering the proceeds without being either detected by the police, including the senior office Philippe who happens to be her lover, or exposing herself to the vengeance of thwarted dealers?

Apart from being a crime thriller which depends too heavily on coincidences and glosses over plot flaws, this is also a psychological study of a somewhat cold, calculating woman, lacking in empathy, who on her own admission has no friends, only acquaintances, since she makes no effort to hide her impatience with people she finds slow or boring. Apparently only capable of feeling love for her dead husband or dumb animals – the first luxury she buys with her illgotten games is an expensive collar for DNA – she is secretly repelled by Philippe’s lovemaking and displays a troubling lack of compassion for her mother. Has her personality been moulded by an amoral, emotionally deprived upbringing with her criminal wheeler-dealer Tunisian father and Jewish mother traumatised by time spent in a concentration camp? Apart from holidays in luxury hotels abroad, Patience grew up on a property next to a motorway, where unwelcome intruders were shot down by her father, to be buried in a corner plot where the grass grew abnormally green, fed by a phosphate-filled soil – a typical macabre allusion.

Patience’s cynicism can be amusing, as when she cites Philippe’s great fault: he believes in God. “If he’d told me he believed in a human destiny governed by a plate of celestial noodles, I couldn’t have found it more ridiculous”. She is acutely aware of the irony of situation: criminalisation of cannabis stimulates “the web-of drug-taking which drowns France” on one hand, and costly legal action on the other, as the police and lawyers pursue the dealers who are selling drugs for inflated prices to their children. Still, at least it creates employment.

The pace seems quite uneven, with abrupt digressions into Patience’s past life interrupting the narrative flow. Tedious detail at some points contrasts with overly rapid treatment of the occasional highly dramatic incidents at others. Most of the characters seem too highly exaggerated to be either convincing or engaging. The result is a patchy black farce which sits oddly with potentially moving explorations of human nature.

“La Daronne”, meaning “mother” or “boss lady” in French was presumably translated as “The Godmother” in the mafia sense of the word. Seemingly written with a film in mind, it has been dramatised with the title “Mama Weed” and Isabelle Huppert in the lead. Is this the kind of book which “works better” in the visual images of a film, perhaps losing some complexity in the process?

Grand Frère or Older Brother: staging a comeback

Two brothers, unnamed until the final twist of the almost all-revealing epilogue, grow up in Paris caught between two very different cultures: their volatile left-wing father fled from Syria to France where, having abandoned his studies, he married their Breton mother who died tragically young when they still needed her stable influence.

The narrative swings between the two men, helpfully printed in different fonts although their written styles are very different. Older Brother (Grand Frère) slogs for a “VTC” app-based Uber-like chauffeur-driven car hire company, much to the fury of his father who drives a conventional taxi under threat from the hi-tech competition.

Younger Brother, probably more intelligent and reflective, is an operating theatre nurse who disappears without warning to Syria, where, if he is to be believed, he simply hopes to gain more job satisfaction, with a better prospect of progressing to work as a doctor than in the prejudiced environment of a Parisian hospital. This move shocks his brother and father, not least because they come under suspicion as supporters of a possible terrorist.

After a slow-paced scene-setting start, the novel “takes off” when younger brother suddenly reappears after an absence of three years, presenting his sibling, already under pressure as an involuntary police informer, with a problem: should he shop his brother, or make himself accessory to an assumed terrorist by helping him?

Reading this in the original French, I found the first part hard going, partly owing to the large amount of French slang and Arab colloquialisms helpfully often translated in the glossary at the end – there may even be some of the words the author enjoys inventing! There is also Older Brother’s tendency to express himself in a stream of marijuana-befuddled consciousness. His is a very macho, chauvinist cochon culture: still in her mid-twenties, his “woman” has breasts hanging to her navel, to give a flavour of this. Yet his flow provides a vivid picture of the immigrant communities with the older men grafting to make a living in Paris, while their children channel their talents into rap, or fall under the spell of silver-tongued religious fanatics. The author’s fascination with people-watching feeds the sharp observations of the passengers whom Older Brother transports round the capital, and fragments of his homespun philosophy on life show surprising flashes of insight.

It’s worth looking up any reference one does not understand: I was intrigued by the detailed description of a thumb-shaped sculpture in the La Défense area which actually exists in Google images.

soundlandscapes on Twitter: "'Le Pouce': César Baldaccini's iconic 40-foot  thumb in La Défense this afternoon.… "

An interesting talk by the author, himself the children of immigrants from Kurdish Turkey, which seems to have made him more open to challenging conventions of all kinds, helped me to appreciate this award-winning first novel more. The French which I often found so hard to grasp is apparently the language of many young people in France, with immigrants too often feeling alienated or undervalued. Of course, much of this authentic flavour would be lost in translation, but the novel would be easier to read!

The accelerating pace to a dramatic climax encourages one to keep going, but it is the epilogue which, even if not an entirely original ploy, provides what seems on reflection to be the only satisfactory ending, also a resolution of some implausible aspects of the plot which troubled me. Its open-endedness gives scope for the author to write a sequel.

Le Mystère Henri Pick (The Mystery of Henri Pick) by David Foenkinos: picking over the traces

Ambitious young Parisian book editor Delphine Despero falls for moody young writer Frédéric Koskas, but despite her efforts in getting his first novel published quickly amid much hype, it proves a flop. On a visit to her parents in Brittany, the couple are intrigued by the local bookstore to which writers bring novels rejected for publication, where they discover a literary masterpiece written by one “Henri Pick”, who turns out improbably to be the recently deceased manager of the local pizza restaurant, recalled by his wife and daughter as neither a great reader nor known to write more than an occasional shopping list. The publicity storm created by this threatens to blow off course if not capsize the lives of all concerned.

At first, I found this book lightweight and contrived, and was motivated to read on only by the fact it was my book group choice, which at least served to improve my French. I was mildly irritated by the unnecessary footnotes which interrupted the flow, but more so by the pretentious tendency to write knowingly about the world of publishing, the pain of the writing process, and to name-drop shamelessly writers and books which a reader needs to be excessively “well-read” to appreciate. I suppose some of the Wikipedia-swallowing digressions are interesting, as in the poignant description of the real-life photographer Vivian Maier who worked for a year as a New York nanny, producing and storing thousands of Cartier-Bresson type photographs, sometimes without even developing the film, which remained undiscovered and unrecognised in her lifetime.

I am also uneasy about authors who, far from denying that characters bear any resemblance to living persons, actually include very much alive celebrities in their books – including in this case Jean-Paul Enthoven who by chance ironically figured in the press over his rejection of his Raphael’s overly autobiographical novel the day before I encountered him in this quirky novel.

Although my initial reaction has not fundamentally changed, at some point the whimsical humour did strike a chord with me – I think at the point when a character is dumped by his lover for scraping her Volvo car not once but twice, and thereafter is obsessed with Volvo cars, which he discovers are all without exception scratched. Foenkinos also succeeded in arousing my curiosity as to who really wrote the masterpiece.

I realised eventually that it is unimportant that “The Last Hours of a Love Story” somehow linked to the death of Pushkin sounds pretty unlikely to become a bestseller, and is probably intended to parody the publishing world’s hyping of often mediocre books. “The Mystery of Henry Pick” is really a series of psychological studies: the vitriolic book critic who finds himself friendless when he loses his job and comes to realise that he has been venting his own frustration over his inability get published; the woman whose impulsive affair with a stranger helps her to see how she has allowed her life to go awry. It is all about how and why people manipulate situations, fail to communicate with each other, or at some point come to take stock of how they have lived, all this conveyed through often humorous insights.

With talk at one point of “making a Biopick”, this novel lends itself to be made into an entertaining film, as has been the case. The setting in Crozon on the west coast of Brittany must also have boosted its tourist trade.