“The Shadow King” by Maaze Mengiste: when more is less

This ambitious novel, partly inspired by the author’s own great-grandmother who insisted on going into battle armed with her father’s rifle because her brothers were too young to fight, recalls Mussolini’s long-forgotten invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 to expunge the humiliation Italian soldiers had suffered unexpectedly at the hands of native warriors forty years earlier. Since this time, the Italians are equipped with planes, tanks and mustard gas, it seems inevitable that they will win.

The drama is played out largely from the viewpoints of two main characters: the young Ethiopian girl Hirut, and Jewish Italian soldier Ettore, who takes on the role of war photographer.

The orphaned Hirut has been taken into the household of warrior leader Kidane, ostensibly because of his fond memories of her mother, but arousing the jealous of his wife Aster, already quite disturbed through the recent death of her infant son, and repressed frustration over being forced to submit to her husband’s will. As propaganda leaflets fomenting rebellion against Emperor Haile Selassie fall from Italian planes, and an invasion fleet lands in nearby Eritrea, Kidane musters his fighters, but the women wish to do more than merely provide the food and bandages.

Ettore’s father exhorts him to use his camera to “bear witness to what is happening. Make living your act of defiance. Record it all. Do it relentlessly….” but living with the fear of exposure under an anti-semitic regime lays Ettore open to blackmail by his sadistic senior office Fucelli, who forces him to photograph mutiliated soldiers and abused captive women for propaganda purposes. In the process, his work becomes perverted by an obsession with the artistry of a hanging body, or a form plunging into a ravine.

In a cast of complex but generally underdeveloped characters, only the brutal Colonel Fucelli is almost unremittingly stereotyped, although even he can blame a cruel father for his warped nature.

The shadowy presence of Haile Selassie hovers in the background, portrayed as a weak figure who takes refuge in listening endlessly to Aida, eventually fleeing to the safety of Bath in England. His loyal subjects resort to the tradition of using a “shadow king” or body double of the Emperor to restore the morale of a population willing to be conned. Which of these two men is the real “Shadow King”?

The key to understanding this novel lies in Salman Rushdie’s description of it as “lyrically lifting history towards myth”. Yet in imitating the style of “The Iliad” or Greek tragedies like “The Oresteia”, chorus included, the novel often has a stylised, theatrical quality which makes the characters less realistic and moving , and also tends to objectify battle into a troubling kind of art form.

The style is intensely visual, with hardly a description failing to mention how the quality of the light and how it falls. There are continual references to the photographs poignantly or grotesquely capturing the moment. Yet all this is with diminishing effect, eventually counterproductive, as the novel becomes simply too wordy, too repetitious, too overblown, too contrived, too implausible, too long. The bludgeoning from incessant, overwrought sentences which on analysis often mean nothing, wore me down.

There is great potential in the interesting multi-stranded theme and I admired the author’s depth of research and appreciated her passion. Although I was left feeling frustrated by a flawed novel in which so many possible insights are obscured, it has at least motivated me to find out more about Ethiopia.

“Ça Raconte Sarah” or “All about Sarah” by Pauline Delaboy-Allard: Crazed Love

Ca raconte Sarah (Double t. 121) (French Edition) by [Pauline Delabroy-Allard]

The narrator  whose name we never learn, so I shall call her “N”,  is a Parisian teacher with a young daughter, abandoned recently by her husband,  who gets embroiled in an intense love affair with Sarah, a talented violinist who plays in a string quartet at international concerts. Extrovert, capricious, out to shock, Sarah cuts a striking figure with her distinctive, mysterious beauty,  nose hooked like a bird’s beak,  green eyes the colour of malachite, or absinthe, hooded like a serpent’s – this gives a flavour of the book’s extravagant flow of words to describe her in minute detail. Quite what Sarah sees in the comparatively ordinary N, whether she genuinely reciprocates the passion, is never made clear, but it seems neither woman has been involved in a lesbian relationship before.

All About Sarah by [Pauline Delabroy-Allard, Adriana Hunter]

The novel succeeds in depicting an obsessive love, at times mixed with hate in the first part, followed in the second half by the intense grief of an irretrievably lost love, evoking a bizarre sense of relief  mingled with guilt. This is achieved by continual repetition of incidents and phrases with a hypnotic effect, often like the variations on a musical theme.

The prose switches between a poetic flow and dry definitions incongruously inserted in the text to create some contrived, heavy-handed,  metaphors as when Sarah, having stated, “I think I’m in love with you”, strikes a match, which gives off the odour of sulphur, followed by a definition of sulphur, “symbol S”, followed by a description of Sarah, “symbol S”. Another occurs in Trieste where N, who has taken  refuge alone, is troubled by an intense moaning which turns out to be the local wind, the bora, “which drives people mad”, but in her increasingly demented state, N observes, “I know it isn’t the wind, but its you, Sarah who is howling…you’ve found me and your will not leave me in peace”.  At this point the novel takes on hints of a gothic horror tale.

The relationship takes its course in a kind of vacuum in which N’s daughter, the ex-husband who wants partial custody, the interim Bulgarian boyfriend, colleagues at work  who might be wondering what is afoot remain ciphers, blank slates. Rather than become irritated by the implausibility of all this,  one has to assume that the focus on the love affair to the virtual exclusion of everyone else is intentional to heighten its  claustrophobic intensity. However, it becomes so extreme and long drawn out that I never really felt myself engaged in it. Perhaps a more tightly written novella would have made more impact.

It seems that, herself obsessed by Margaret Duras, author of “Hiroshima mon Amour”, the author tried to portray a passionate affair in imitation, perhaps appearing a little pretentious and “pseudo-literary” in the process.

We know from the prologue that the love is doomed, since the N  is lying in bed with her love as she  dies – but at the end of the novel we are left wondering whether Sarah really did die, and if so how, while N’s fate is also ambiguous. Sarah  certainly seems to be mentally unstable,  and the love affair seems to drive N into a state of madness, so that at the end she in a sense becomes Sarah, in  what seems a circular narrative. It seems that the author wishes to leave the interpretation of the novel open to each individual reader.

“Elmet” by Fiona Mozley: an inevitable descent?

Teenagers Daniel and his elder sister Cathy help their father to construct the isolated house in a hill-top copse which he does not own within earshot of the East Coast Main Line through Yorkshire, an odd choice for a rural retreat. Apart from a period attending school, where they found it hard to fit in, the pair have spent their childhoods as outsiders, dominated by their “Daddy” John, throwback to a former, simpler age, who wishes to have no truck with modern life, although to earn the money to make this possible, he engages at times with the sleazier parts of it, using his remarkable strength and skill as a bare-knuckle fighter (the name alone makes one wince in pain) in bouts arranged by gypsies and crooks. Portrayed as a kind of latter-day Robin Hood, he often channels his violence to settle scores against villains on behalf of those too physically weak to do so. Narrator Daniel describes how humanely “Daddy” traps and kills animals for food, but is he really a good man?

Daddy’s unconventional views are demonstrated in his attitude to land. “It’s idea a person can write summat on a bit of paper about a piece of land that lives and breathes, and changes and quakes and floods and dries, and that that person can used it as he will, or not at all, and that he can keep others off it, all because of a piece of paper. That’s part which means nowt to me.”

Unsurprisingly, owner of the land in question, Mr Price, takes issue with him over this, although there turn out to be other reasons for a long-term grievance between the two men. Can Daddy really hope to win against a wealthy wily, unscrupulous landowner? Brought up to defend themselves, how well will Daniel and Cathy be able to support their father when it comes to the crunch?

The location “Elmet” is inspired by the poetry of Ted Hughes, “The Remains of Elmet”, which he described as, “The Calder valley, west of Halifax, was the last ditch of Elmet, the last British Celtic kingdom to fall to the Angles. For centuries it was considered a more or less uninhabitable wilderness, a notorious refuge for criminals, a hide-out for refugees”. The novel also has hints of a latterday “Wuthering Heights”.

Author Fiona Mozley succeeds in creating a vivid sense of place, as regards both the natural landscape and the local community, impoverished by mine closures, where people struggle on zero hours contracts at the mercy of dishonest local employers. There is a convincing portrayal of the complex bond between the father and his children: caring and protective on one hand, he is unintentionally neglectful and damaging on the other. The children’s roles are a reversal of the norm, with Cathy strong and aggressive and Daniel gentle and domesticated.

I understand why many readers have praised this book, even how it came to be short-listed for the Man Booker Prize. Yet, although an original debut novel, it falls short for me in some fundamental ways. Perhaps the author wanted to portray Daniel as both immature and perceptive for his age, but his “voice” is inconsistent, switching between that of a naïve, inexperienced boy to observations and insights beyond his years. Poetic passages often sit oddly in the text, by turns overly sophisticated or grating:

“He was a human, and the gamut upon which his inner life trilled ranged from the translucent surface to beyond the deepest crevice of any sea. His music pitched above the hearing of hounds and below the trembling of trees.”
Since the author grew up in Yorkshire, I have to assume she has “captured” the local dialect, but many of the longer dialogues contain too much exposition. Some characters, like the children’s absent mother, or their neighbour Vivien, are underdeveloped. The violence of the climax surpasses everything which precedes it, but becomes quite implausible in the process. Also, the novel gains little from what has become the formulaic prologue trying to hook the reader by “giving away” some of the ultimate violent outcome, nor from the “flash forward” passages also in italics which show Daniel in the aftermath of events.

“History of Wolves” by Emily Fridlund: “The false belief that anything could ever end”.

Narrator Madeline, called Linda at school, recalls her childhood in the backwoods of northern Minnesota, where her lapsed hippie parents scrape a living after the failure of their commune. A teenage loner with no real friends, she lives in a kind of emotional vacuum between her strong, silent father “who always made it seem a great kindness… not to ask too many questions” and self-absorbed, insensitive mother with her half-finished projects, of which Linda is one. Expected to undertake adult tasks from an early age – chopping wood, feeding and exercising the dogs, walking miles in the dark after school to fetch drain unblocker – yet also given total freedom to roam, Linda observes people with the same forensic eye she applies to the natural world, but is often unable to interact “normally”, to the point of seeming autistic. She tends to become obsessed with other “outsiders”, like teacher with a shady past, Mr Grierson, who may have seduced pliant Lily, mocked for being part-Indian, which she never denies.

When the Gardners occupy a lakeside house in the area, Linda is paid to childmind their precocious four-year-old son Paul, and is surprised by the unfamiliar sensation of bonding with the little boy, also perhaps developing a crush on his mother Patra, who seems at times like an older sister. Linda notices Patra’s moments of “breathtaking tenderness” for her son, only to neglect him in her abject need to please dominant husband Leo. He turns out to be a third generation Christian Scientist which sits oddly with his profession as an academic astronomer. Members of this religion will not be pleased with the portrayal of their beliefs in this book, as troubling signs of something amiss in the Gardner family gradually builds up to a tragedy in which Linda is implicated.

This highly original, quirky novel is marked by a string of striking descriptions which enable one to visualise or sense situations even if entirely outside one’s experience: the changing colours in the sky above a lake as the night draws in; the behaviour of dogs; the pleasure of watching a child’s absorption in doing a jigsaw; a mother’s fruitless efforts to induce her teenage daughter to talk to her.

There are sharp insights, and bitter ironies as in the case of Mr Grierson who may have been punished for actions he only thought of committing – a twist of the Christian Scientist belief that “it’s not what you do but what you think that matters”.

Yet the critical incident, which arguably haunts and defines the rest of Linda’s life, remains unclear in some key respects and insufficiently explored. This may be deliberate since the author is more interested in capturing an individual’s thought processes together with the fragmented, even inaccurate impressions she may draw from a situation.

What may seem like a weakness in what I found to be the artificial, unconvincing conversations involving Leo and later Linda’s lover Rom may also be intentional, in that Linda either does not understand what the former is saying or resents the latter’s attempt to pin her down.

Perhaps a novel such as this can only have an ambiguous ending, but I was somewhat disappointed by what seemed a creative writer’s damp squib of a final twist which provides a somewhat weak conclusion. It left me with a sense of sadness over a life which seems needlessly blighted, since Linda is portrayed for much of the book as a bright, resilient person with a wry take on the world.

Overall, deservedly shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, this novel probably needs to be read more than once to appreciate it fully.

“Désorientale” (Desoriental) by Négar Djavadi – Culture shock

Disoriental by [Négar Djavadi, Tina Kover]Born into an Iranian family of intellectuals who opposed the regimes of both the Shah and Khomeini, author Négar Djavidi arrived in France aged 11 after crossing the mountains of Kurdistan on horseback with her mother and sister. This gives an authentic ring  and some autobiographical elements to her acclaimed first novel.

It is a family saga covering four generations of an Iranian family  over more than a century of dramatic political and cultural change from exotically named feudal lord  Montazemolmolk living in the northern region of Mazandaran, with his harem of more than fifty bickering wives to grandson Darius, a dissident intellectual whose writing against first the Shah and then Ayatollah Khomeini forces him into exile in Paris with his family, including daughter Kimiâ, the narrator.

Much of the story is related in the form of flashbacks or imagined reconstructions of anecdotes Kimiâ has heard about her relatives, recalled as she sits, clutching a tube of sperm, in the waiting room of a Paris fertility clinic. This rather clunky plot device adds to the reader’s frequent confusion over the large number of often thinly sketched characters, like the brothers of Darius who are referred to by numbers 1 to 6 (there is a list of key family members at the back which you could miss until too late) and continual lengthy digressions.  The approach is deliberate in that the author has explained when interviewed her aim to portray the fragmented, kaleidoscopic nature of memory. Although this has received critical praise, I found the abrupt switches in her thoughts, usually expressed in dense exposition, quite hard to take. A stream of consciousness  can be very powerful, but in this case the continual change of subject is further disrupted when Kimiâ becomes an intrusive narrator,  justifying or apologising for an abrupt switch of topic:  “Allow me before it’s too late, before the storm of the Revolution rises and invades my story, to return to my resemblance to Grandmother”.  Dramatic events are undermined by a lack of subtlety,  even giving them an incongruous pantomime quality, as in the continual foreshadowing of  “L’ÉVÉNEMENT” (“THE EVENT”).

Continually being told what to think, trying to keep track of the characters as they flit in and out, mentioned in passing, I rarely engaged with any of them. The author is  by profession a script writer, so I am surprised that she did not make more use of scenes with dialogues which would have enabled the characters to reveal themselves, open to interpretation as we do in real life. The details of the occasional footnotes to provide a condensed history of events could have been woven into the story, or included as an introduction at the outset.

Kimiâ is “disoriented” in more than one sense: not only the abrupt cultural change from Teheran to Paris via an arduous trek led by people smugglers, but also confusion over her sexuality. Predicted by her tealeaf reading grandmother to be a boy, she acts and feels like one, imagining herself growing up to be a man. Her period of extreme teenage rebellion in Paris, dressing as a punk, drinking and smoking joints in shared squats after her perplexed mother has thrown her out is therefore a way of taking refuge in a world where her background is of no interest and she is not judged. She ends up in a relationship with a woman, but desperate to have children fathered by a man who will take an interest in his children, and able to provide the kind of cultural context she has lost in exile.

Although I think a heavily pruned version of the story with fewer characters would have been much more effective and allowed more space to develop some interesting ideas, perhaps the style is in the tradition of Iranian storytelling, so that an oppressively large cast of relatives bound in a love-hate relationship, and strong ties of mutual support and obligation, somehow co-existing with harsh judgement and rejection e.g. of homosexuality (to the extent of denying its existence), serve to provide the necessary insight into Iranian life.  By contrast, Kimiâ’s  adult world of punk and pop groups and artificial insemination for lesbians using sperm from an HIV positive man,  is not really typical of the West, and is a rather extreme example of the contrast between the freedom of the West and the conservatism of Iran.

There are some interesting comparisons e.g. whereas the Paris clinic is tense and silent, in Iran people would be so engaged in chatting that they would not notice when their turn to be seen arrived!  When the mother of Kimiâ’s partner  confuses Iran with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Kimiâ sees this as the result of living in Belgium, a reassuring, peaceful place where everyone’s the same, after living for generations free of problems without any immigration or mixing: “no need to concern oneself with other people,  nor to be afraid of them, nor question their presence”.  This of course shows a lack of knowledge and understanding on both sides!

Although I read this in the original French, I believe the English translation is very faithful to it.

“In the Full Light of the Sun” by Clare Clark – fascinating theme but confused plot

Against a backdrop of rampant inflation and corruption, “madness spreading like gas”, in 1920s Berlin, famous art critic Julius Köhler-Schultz is in the throes of a bitter divorce from his much younger wife, who has decamped with their small son and “the only painting in the world” Julius “could not bear to live without”, a self-portrait of Van Gogh. In this vulnerable state he falls under the spell of a charismatic young art dealer, Matthias Rachman, but is he quite what he seems? Julius also supports the artistic ambitions of talented but troubled teenager Emmeline Eberhardt.

This novel was inspired by the long-forgotten but once famous case of Otto Wacker, the German dancer who was eventually tried for knowingly selling fake Van Gogh paintings, always after compromising the reputation of some expert by gaining his authentication. Initially I was impressed by the novel’s very strong sense of time and place, and the slow-burning build-up of suspense. It was therefore a shock to be plummeted into Part 2 with an abrupt switch to the viewpoint of Emmeline whose drunken agonising over unrequited lesbian love becomes somewhat tedious, although no doubt a true reflection of one aspect of inter-war Berlin. By the time I reached Part 3 in the form of the diary of lawyer Frank Berzacki, forced to face up to the Nazi regime’s inexorable crushing of Jewish rights, I realised that the author has deliberately inverted what one expects of a plot. Instead of setting an art crime at the forefront, this is obliquely referred to throughout the book, generally secondary to the inner thoughts and concerns of the three main characters in turn.

Can one ever be sure a painting is not a fake? Are the eye-watering sums paid for some art justified? Such questions woven into a historical thriller about possible fraud should make an absorbing read, so why did I find it frustrating, the middle section in particular such heavy going? I could forgive the frequently overblown or mawkish style whenever the author touches on passionate feelings, because this is offset by the many striking, poetical images, particularly in Emmeline’s section which I suppose is a way of portraying her artistic eye. She describes a flock of starlings: “ a vast rippling cape…surging and wheeling, stretching into swooping curves, twisting in helixes, rising in streamers on the wind, the whisper-roar of their wings like the sea or the thrumming of a thousand fingers on a thousand paper drums”.

The three sections are welded together in an unwieldy structure. Too many mostly thinly sketched and often unnecessary characters, and minor incidents which pad the novel up to over four hundred pages, tend to overwhelm or drive out the plot, in which key events take place “off stage” and so remain confused or unclear and left for the reader to surmise. I would have preferred the author’s painstaking research applied to a factual portrayal of art in interwar Germany.

Hiver à Sokcho or Winter in Sokcho by Elsa Shua Dusapin – “When the rain-hammered sea rises like spikes on the spine of a sea urchin”

I did not expect to be so gripped by this choice for a French book group, which has also been highly praised in its English translation.

A twenty-five-year-old narrator whose name we never learn, so I shall call her “N”, returns from studies in Seoul to her home town of Sokcho, a seaside resort more dead than alive in the winter snows near the grimly surreal border zone with North Korea. N seems to feel a perpetual “outsider”, through being only half Korean, her father a French engineer “passing through” of whom she has no memories. Since the author is also half-Korean and half-French, one has to hope that this is not too autobiographical.

Into the rundown hotel where she skivvies for the grumpy Park, there appears Kerrand, a successful creator of graphic novels, with the added attraction of being French, who immediately uses N to help him buy art materials and guide him around. From the outset they are drawn to each other: both introverted, troubled and unfulfilled, which drives Kerrand to drift round the world seeking a purpose for the cartoon hero who may be his “alter ego”, while N tries to avoid facing up to her feelings by burying herself in routine tasks and clinging to the mantra that “her mother needs her”. Although on the same wavelength when discussing Kerrand’s art, they find it impossible to express, perhaps even acknowledge their emotions, as they keep making tentative advances and then withdrawing, always out of phase.

I admire the deceptive simplicity with which the author subtly conveys so much in such a short novel, with chapters rarely more than two pages, written in a clear style, switching between minute description and a kind of poetry to create vivid pictures. It is necessary to read every word to avoid missing some vital point.
Unable to predict the ending, I was not surprised that it proved ambiguous and in some respects sad, yet still somehow the right outcome of this skilfully crafted novel.

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Reading between the lines, N’s incongruous engagement to the self-absorbed male model Jun-Oh, seems most likely to be a failed attempt to ward off her mother’s continual badgering for her to get married. Repressing her frustration, N’s at times almost bulimic stuffing of food to please her mother indicates her mental distress. Portrayed as a robust character less in need of help than her daughter, her mother runs a fish stall and takes pride in her cuisine, including her licence to remove the poison-filled liver from the puffer-fish, a Korean delicacy. Food, particularly of a fishy nature, plays an important role in this book as it does in Korean life.

We are given an intriguing insight into Korean life outside the westernised bubble of Seoul: the celebration of Seollal, the Korean New Year; the social life round the jjjmjilbang, or segregated Korean bathhouse; the “haenyeo”, hardy female divers with the unfamiliar (to us) range of edible creatures they cull from the sea.
Since Kerrand is keen to be driven to the border with North Korea, N visits it for the first time, because “only the tourists come here”. “Forbidden to leave the marked track, forbidden to raise one’s voice, forbidden to laugh” they pass through no man’s land “beige and grey as far as the eye can see”, where N can only tell that the grey-uniformed figure behind the souvenir counter is alive from the blink of her eyelids. The threat from the North even extends to the beach where a summer tourist who strays over the border risks being shot by an enemy machine gun.

N guides Kerrand round the Buddhist temple at Naksan, prompted by the stone statues to relate the folktale of the serpent which the dragon, guardian of the spring, must find to make the tortoise, guardian of the winter, cede his place.

Many phrases stick in the mind: “Pavane of dead leaves in the wind” or a striking description of fishermen preparing to catch squid: the slow rhythm of their boats on the swell, the switching on of bulbs attached to cables stretched from poop to prow to attract the molluscs, the pagoda at the end of the jetty from which N can watch their “light traps part towards the open waters, a slow and proud procession, the Milky Way of the sea” – all much more beautiful in the original French.

The Plague (La Peste) by Albert Camus: Winning knowledge and memories in the conflict between life and the plague

Published in 1947, this French classic is often taken as a metaphor for the French resistance in its courageous but futile fight against the Nazi occupation. Those who have rushed to buy it in 2020, cannot fail to be taken aback by the similarities to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Set in the Algerian town of Oran, the central character is Doctor Rieux who galvanises the authorities into action through his insistence that, however unlikely a rat-born bubonic plague may seem, there is no time for reflection and waiting for official confirmation. Unless one acts immediately as if it were the plague, there is a risk that half the town’s population will die.

Official reactions are all too familiar, such as the “Prefet” who is terrified of using the word “plague” even in a meeting behind closed doors, but fears even more accusations of failure to deal with the crisis. Rieux notes wrily how the first warning posters are rather small, pasted in “discreet” corners” in an attempt to “keep the lid” on public anxiety. “Specially equipped” wards for plague victims are created by giving other sick patients lower priority. The “serum” flown is in short supply and gets less effective over time, and the attempts to develop a vaccine take months to succeed. Eventually there’s even a lack of coffins, but with commerce killed by the plague, there are plenty of unemployed men to dig the graves.

As the spring arrives with the usual baskets of scented roses for sale, the plague subsides, only to surge back, forcing official declaration of the epidemic and sealing of the town. Individual reactions merge into a common sense of fear and separation from the outside world, with everyone bound by the same restrictions, such as the prohibition of sending letters, as possible sources of infection. A restaurant crowded with customers since this is a convenient way of obtaining food gives a false sense of normality -panic breaks out when someone abruptly flees from the scene, vomiting. The isolation camps eventually set up are like “different planets” from which distant sounds of the town compound the sense of rejection.

Camus pulls no punches when it comes to describing the night train transporting bodies for mass burial, or characters fighting for their lives. Nothing is omitted: the attacks on locked gates by those frantic to escape, the looting of houses set ablaze, imposition of curfews, fear of prison sentences because of the high death rates there, the rapid burials with minimal funeral rites.

Initially masking their fear with jokes, the inhabitants develop over time the mind-set of prisoners who dare not speculate on their release date, reduced to dwelling on their past. Outsiders clumsily express their “solidarity” but are powerless to share in a suffering they cannot really envisage.

Rather like Isaac Newton who apparently recommended powdered toad mixed with toad vomit to avert the plague, people turn in desperation to quack remedies and superstition, clearing pharmacies of menthol pastilles rumoured to protect again contagion, and more consoled by wearing charms than going to mass. This is hardly surprising since the grim Father Paneloux preaches that the plague is a punishment for sin, until the sight of an innocent young child dying in agony triggers a crisis of doubt in his own faith.

“One gets tired of pity when pity is useless”: the pragmatic Rieux finds relief in hardening his heart against emotion. Voicing the author’s existentialist views on the essential absurdity of the world, “it is unimportant whether events have a meaning or not”. What matters is how people react to them. His fight against the plague has proved to him that in mankind there is generally more to admire than to despise.

Events play out against the backdrop of a strong sense of place, and striking images, often involving the sun, wind, dust and the sea: at the peak of the crisis, the deserted Algerian town is “a silent assemblage of massive, inert cubes” that “white with dust… sonorous with the cries of the wind, groaned like an island of misery……The inhabitants blamed the wind for transporting the plague”.

This is not a chronicle that ends in definitive victory. The plague is portrayed as a kind of living beast, or malign being, only subsiding when it has for the time being exhausted itself or achieved what it set out to do. In the aftermath, all most people want is to behave as if nothing has changed, but the plague cannot be forgotten, even when the disrupted services have been restored. The wise Rieux knows what the crowds coming to celebrate the end of the plague do not: the bacillus carrying the plague never dies, but waits patiently, for the day when “for the misery and instruction of man” it awakes the rats and sends them to bring death to a carefree city.

I agree with a reviewer who found the style so analytical and objective that it was hard to develop strong empathy for any of the characters as “flesh and blood individuals” apart from Rieux.

Yet perhaps because I read it during the “coronavirus lockdown”, this novel made a huge impression on me. So well written in the original French, lending itself to translation without a loss of its power, wide-ranging in its insight, it repays reading more than once to absorb it fully.

 

“Cheri” by Colette: a question of age.

Cheri (Vintage Classics) by [Colette]

Although I read this in French, I bought the English version featured here to help me cope with some of the more obscure passages in the original French, and as a translation it captures the spirit of the classic novel.

With her wry wit, strong sense of place, concise, vivid descriptions and minute dissection of her characters’ shifting emotions, Colette was a talented writer, even if her novels now seem dated, perhaps in particular this novel set in the Paris of the idle rich around 1900. Too handsome for his own good, both neglected and indulged from birth by his ghastly mother Charlotte, a courtesan who has done well for herself, Chéri (aka Fred!) has for six years been the lover of her rival and friend of a sort, the beautiful, high class “tart with a heart”, Léa, twenty-four years his senior. So what will happen when Charlotte marries him off to a “suitable” young girl? Does Chérie love Léa mainly as the caring mother he never had? Does Léa love Chérie as a means of keeping at bay the physical decline into old age which she does not want to face? Is this the tragedy of two people who, beneath all the banter and bickering, have a genuine love for each other, more than just intensely physical, yet the great difference in their ages makes it impossible for them to make a permanent life together?

I found this quite hard to read in the original French, because of the old-fashioned vocabulary relating to the past culture and fashions of the day, so had to resort to an English translation to check on a few points. For instance, “pneumatiques” turned out to be the “petits bleus” telegrams sent round Paris in metal tubes (via the sewers!).

Apart from Léa and the unfortunate young wife Edmée, the characters are fairly unappealing, not least the petulant, capricious Chéri, clearly unfulfilled, bored and desperately in need of some useful occupation. The dialogues are often quite funny, and the emotionally charged climax in which Léa and Chéri finally express themselves honestly is powerful and revealing, but there is a shallowness to their lives which is rather depressing. Since Colette’s own life was clearly often driven by strong physical passions, I have probably not interpreted the book in the way she had in mind.

An intriguing footnote is that Colette herself had an affair in her late forties with a teenage step-son, I believe after having written this book which perhaps enacts a long-held personal fantasy. This relationship apparently inspired “Le Blé en Herbe, which I would recommend more. The work by Colette which I most admire is the semi-autobiographical, “La Naissance du Jour”.

“Un brillant avenir” by Catherine Cusset: “bitter sweet”

Un brillant avenir (Folio t. 5023) (French Edition) by [Cusset, Catherine]

As an opening hook, the portrayal of Helen, an elderly woman frustrated by her husband’s dementia but traumatised by his sudden death and apparent suicide, may not seem at all compelling. It turns out to be a family saga, with the focus on Helen, née Elena in post-war Communist Romania and destined to marry Jacob, a handsome young Jewish man, in the teeth of the ingrained anti-semitism of Ceaușescu’s bigoted, inward-looking regime, which drives her to seek emigration first to Israel and then the United States to obtain a better future for her adored only son, Alexandru.

Written in a clear and simple style, with a strong focus on the minutiae of daily life, this novel feels very authentic, but too often also banal, even boring. This contrasts with the complexity resulting from the decision to alternate chapters back and forth in time, which proves a little disjointed and confusing at times, giving the reader the benefit of additional insight into events, but at the cost of destroying some of the potential for dramatic tension.

Although Helen is not a particularly likeable character, given to emotional, hysterical, manipulative behaviour, the author develops a detailed character study which enables one to empathise with her at many points in the story and to understand the forces which have shaped her. The same applies to her French daughter-in-law Marie, much more laid back and unconsciously thoughtless with a sense of entitlement born of a more relaxed and free upbringing. The tension between the two women and the relationship which they eventually achieve weaves a strong thread through the narrative.

For me, this reads like a series of short stories based on the same characters, which gradually caught my interest through a few striking incidents. For instance, there is the irony in how, having battled and plotted to get married, Helen and Jacob commit the same error as her parents in trying to prevent their son Alexandru’s marriage to Marie, because she is French, so it is assumed will take their son away to a distant land where he will find it harder to realise his “brilliant career”. Then there is the poignant moment when Helen, in the violent grip of labour, waits in a taxi en route for the hospital while her mother takes an inordinate time to appear: it as this point that Helen decides that her adopted mother cannot, as rumour has it, be her birth mother, since the latter would never let her suffer in this way. Another striking scene is when, having taken advantage of Jacob’s Jewishness to escape to Israel, Helen realises that her precious son is destined for a spell in the Israeli army, where her overactive imagination leaves him in no doubt that he will either be killed or maimed. There is also a convincing and moving portrayal of widowhood.

The novel seems to contain “jewels” of insight and observation, together with some realistic experiences, set in a somewhat tedious paste.