Le Train by Georges Simenon


This is my review of  “The Train”   by Georges Simenon.

This slim novel, not part of the Maigret series, establishes Simenon’s right to be considered one of the last century’s greatest writers, in fact Belgian rather than French as commonly supposed. With great clarity and concision, making the process seem effortless, he paints a vivid portrait of an unplanned snap decision to flee in advance of the German invasion of Belgium and France in 1940. He explores both the general sense of unreality, in which one’s past life recedes rapidly, perhaps to the point of appearing never to have existed, and also the freedom to experiment and to live in a new and different way that a disruption like war can bring. At least some of this authenticity must result from the time Simenon spent organising Belgian refugees in France.

Despite having a heavily pregnant wife and young daughter, with little experience of life outside the quiet, conventional small town of Fumay, Marcel Feron does not hesitate to abandon his radio repair business to join the hordes at the railway station clamouring to board the next available train. When the family is separated from the outset, wife and daughter sent to a carriage with the atmosphere of a dentist’s waiting room while Marcel is consigned with the other men to one normally used to carry livestock, he is not unduly concerned. Even when the train is split in two parts, and he has no clue as to his family’s whereabouts, he does not lose his cool. In fact, his calmness seems implausible, even unnatural, until one grasps that he has a fatalistic attitude to life, it would seem owing to previous traumatic experiences on a par with war, such as the memory of his mother brought home naked and head shaved as a punishment for fraternising with German soldiers while her husband was absent fighting in World War 1. Four years as a teenager in a TB sanatorium have also made him innately something of a self-contained loner.

At the same time, the experience of being a refugee en route to an unknown destination, of being abruptly uprooted from everything and everyone familiar to him, is in a strange way liberating. So, without ceasing to love his wife and daughter, he is able to enter easily and without any torturing sense of guilt into a relationship with Anna, the enigmatic, penniless young foreign woman who is clearly vulnerable without his support. He knows that their love has no future, but accepts the situation, simply trying to make the most of it. “Ce qui arriverait, je l’ignorais. Personne ne pouvait le prévoir. Nous vivions un entr’acte, horse de l’espace, et je dévorais ces journées et ces nuits avec gourmandise”. Quite what Anna thinks we are never told, although her own past troubles seem to have made her expect very little, other than to survive.

In later life he writes a secret journal of these events, kept under lock and key. He wants his children to read it one day, to realise he was not the conventional, unadventurous man, incapable of passion that they may imagine.

A final shocking twist at the end leaves one with a sense of ambiguity, uncertain and conflicted as how to judge him as a man. It seems that in real life, Simenon may have been a bit lacking in courage if not exactly a collaborator in France, which may have made him well-placed to invite us to empathise with a flawed man who puts pragmatism and self-interest above bravery and risk-taking.

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.

“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.

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.

Losing a country; L’Art de Perdre by Alice Zeniter


 

This is my review of  L’Art de Perdre by Alice Zeniter.

This saga covering three generations of an Algerian Kabyle family whose lives are torn apart by the struggle for independence from colonial rule which forces their reluctant migration to a France prepared to give them only a grudging reception, provides the clearest insight into a piece of recent history for which the repercussions still make an impact.

The novel begins and ends with Naïma, the superficially liberated young woman employed in a Parisian gallery selling modern art. From the outset she appears unfocused, continually feeling that her life is out of control. This seems in part due to her ignorance about the “real” Algeria, of which relatives old enough to remember living there are remarkably reluctant to talk, the lack of French being a further barrier in some cases.

The book is divided into three parts, one for each generation. Returning from military service in France during World War Two, Naïma’s impoverished grandfather Ali comes across an olive press which he can use to establish a successful business, making his family one of the two richest in his village. Wary of independence movements like the ruthless FLN, Ali has no desire to collaborate with the French soldiers trying to maintain security, but when a colleague is murdered for having continued to accept a pension from France for his war service, Ali knows he no longer has a choice. The most minimal degree of cooperation with the French falsely brands Ali as a “Harki” (one of the native Algerians who fought for France in the War of Independence from 1954 to 1962), so that eventually emigration to France seems the only option.

Part Two covers Ali’s experience of making a living in France, stripped of his prosperity and status, segregated in a forest lumber camp or a grim urban apartment block, sadly estranged from his bright eldest son Hamid who takes the first opportunity to abandon what seem like the shackles of his Kabyle identity, even to the point of marrying a French girl. In Part Three, a work project provides the impetus for Naïma, who is one of Hamid’s daughters, to cross the Mediterranean to visit Algeria for herself. Will it be dangerous to visit the isolated village where some relatives still live? Will she be accepted? Will anything remain of the old way of life? Will she gain any emotional relief from the experience?

Immersed as I was in this long novel, some sentences seem too protracted and complicated, a measure perhaps of the author’s obvious intellect, as she explores in depth her characters’ varied and multi-faceted motivations and reactions to events. Alice Zeniter’s heritage as the descendant of a Harki, with an Algerian father and French mother, enables her to provide the vital hallmark of authenticity, although I have heard her declare in an interview that she does not identify particularly with Naïma, but prefers as an author to observe all her characters objectively from a slight distance.

The author is a gifted story-teller, with the power to convey a strong sense of place, and to develop realistic characters. I liked the well-chosen quotations at the start of each section (“Les jeunes n’accepteront plus ce que les parents ont accepté” – “Il n’est pas de famille qui ne soit le lieu d’un conflit de civilisations”), and the snippets of history, fruit of her obviously thorough research, are useful in explaining the background. The many different and shifting viewpoints are woven skilfully into the story, to help one understand the choices people made and the price they paid for this in each case.
The title is taken, perhaps surprisingly, from the French translation of a poem by the American poet Elizabeth Bishop, “One Art”, which contains the lines:

“The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.”

As an Algerian friend tells Naïma, “You can come to a country without belonging to it…You can lose a country…..Don’t play at being an Algerian if you don’t want to come back to Algeria, What would be the point of that?

This is the kind of novel one is sad to finish, which stays in the mind and influences one’s thinking on a subject