“Un monde à portée de main or “Painting Time” by Maylis de Kerangal

An indulged only child, Paula Karst cannot settle to any course of study until she discovers “trompe l’œil”, the visual art used to trick the eye into perceiving a painting as a three-dimensional object. She is captivated by the hallway of the Institute where she is to study (based on a real college in Brussels): the marble pillars, wooden panels, a sparrow in the foliage of the tree outside the window – all turn out to be on flat, painted surfaces.

This is an unusual, ambitious and daring novel in that it has no plot, focusing instead on Paula’s development as an artist, the details of the materials and techniques she learns to use, her various commissions and the locations where she is employed. Commencing with painting neighbour’s nursery ceiling to resemble the sky, a project her worried parents may have negotiated for her, she progresses to working eventually on “Lascaux 4”, which has combined advanced technology and the skill of artists to produce the latest replica of the famous caves so damaged by the passage of tourists and exposure to the air that it has been necessary to close them to the public.

The written style is hard work with few paragraphs and sentences which may run over more than a page of stream of consciousness, leaping frenetically between loosely linked images, present and past, merging descriptions and internal thoughts with dialogue. This approach may be quite creative in its impressionistic effect, although I was struck afterwards that it is at odds with the discipline of learning how to copy precisely patterns and colours of particular types of marble or wood, which is what Paula’s first contracts tend to involve.

I was put off by the opening chapter which catapults us into Paula’s evening out with her two former college flatmates, Kate and Jonas. They all them self-absorbed, and immature, describing their work in technical terms before one has had a chance to “tune in” to the situation. Finding the frequent lists of materials used quite tedious , and references to unfamiliar subjects meaningless, all that prevented me from giving up was the fact I had purchased the book to discuss at a French book group. It would have been much easier to read in the English version “Painting Time”, but I suspect that would lose too much in translation.

Un monde à portée de main (French Edition) by [Maylis de Kerangal]

Eventually, I found that the key to appreciating this book is to look up the references. In the process, I learned a lot about different types of marble, and wood grains. I was also fascinated by Cinecittà, the Italian Hollywood of which I was shamefully unaware. One evening, Paula looks through a gap in the wall of a former set for “it could be any medieval north Italian town”, across a wasteland to a modern Rome suburb, with its noisy car horns and lighted windows. “Which side is the real world?”

The detailed information on the Lascaux grotto is also fascinating. It is probably a minority view, but I would have preferred the author to have applied her impressive research to a non-fiction, illustrated account of all this, using the style employed to write about Lascaux, which contrasts with the overblown excess of much of the rest.

There are some striking, moving or poignant scenes involving the characters which occasionally appear like treasure chests from a shipwreck, bobbing in a sea of verbiage. For instance, the scene where Paula’s apparently brilliant but unfriendly flatmate Jonas, takes a sudden interest in her work and helps her to understand how, to paint successfully a rock like cerfontaine (otherwise known as “fromage du cochon”!), she needs to think of it in context, how it has been formed, the lives of those who have lived in the places from which it comes. Later on, Jonas and Kate are shocked by Paula’s “unwise” choice of tortoiseshell as the subject for her “final exam” painting, unaware of her beautifully described childhood encounter with a tortoise, so strange in appearance that it seemed to her fertile imagination to have come from another ancient world. The visit of Paula’s father’s to Lascaux when it was still open, which turns out to be true, provides a rare moment of humour, via the drama in which his mischievous brother almost manages to carve some graffiti alongside the priceless prehistoric paintings. Other sections, such as Paula’s liaison with a predatory teacher “the Charlatan”, seem more like padding for the novel, which at times seems meandering and uneven.

One of those books which probably needs to be read more than once to appreciate fully, despite finding it pretentious at times, I would rate it as “good in parts”.

“Mon Traître” by Sorj Chalandon – Still looking for answers

This novel is the memoir of Parisian violin-maker and repairer Antoine or “Tony” who in the 1970s, is inspired, by the photo of an Irish patriot shot by the British in the 1916 Easter Rising, to become passionately involved in the IRA cause, about which he previously knew nothing.  So he bones up on Irish history,  assumes a taste for Guinness, and works his way into the Belfast Catholic community with the aid of one-time gun-runner Jim O’Leary, willing to offer him hospitality on tap. This brings him into contact with Tyrone Meehan, a charismatic IRA leader who in turn takes a shine to him. We know from the outset that Meehan is the “traitor” of the title, so the intriguing mystery lies in the nature of the betrayal, and the reasons for it.

Having read and greatly admired two of Sorj Chalandon’s books, “Le Quatrième Mur” and “Profession de Père”,  I was disappointed by “Mon Traître” for a number of reasons. It is hard to understand why Tony is so drawn to a Belfast he describes as having “cet air épais de tourbe et de charbon” – this thick air of peat and coal, the same in winter, automn, even in summer with the freezing rain, and the distinctive odour of burning hearths, children’s milk, earth, frying food and humidity. Why is he so enamoured by a man  so bent at their first meeting on showing him how to use a urinal without wetting his shoes? In turn, what does Meehan see in “Tony”, a man who comes across as an “oddball” loner, naïf and, as several incidents suggest, mentally unstable? Sporting his symbolic Irish Claddagh ring  and spending hours  at the wake beside the open coffin of Irish hunger striker Bobby Sands, Tony seems desperate to gain a sense of belonging to a cause which is not his own.

There is a lack of depth in the tale which seems to romanticise the IRA, with the Protestants and British soldiers cast as villains,  and to show no awareness of an alternative viewpoint, apart from a single reference to the youth of a murdered soldier. The ultimate disappointment for me was the fact that, once Meehan’s treachery to his cause is exposed, the book focuses on  Tony’s own sense of bewilderment, anger and personal betrayal. There is no exploration or convincing explanation of Meehan’s behaviour.

My Traitor by [Sorj Chalandon]

Since the story did not ring true to me, I was surprised and perhaps chastened to learn it is based on reality  in that Sorj Chalandon, when employed as a journalist in Ireland, actually formed a strong friendship with Denis Donaldson, a senior Sinn Féin member who was revealed as a British secret agent, subsequently assassinated after his treachery was exposed.  Chalandon wrote this book while he was still alive, in a sense coming to terms with his own emotions. A few years later, following Donaldson’s death, he produced a sequel, “Return to Killybegs”, from Tyrone Meehan’s perspective.

From a “dramatic” viewpoint, I would have preferred a single book interweaving the contrasting stances,  but it is helpful to understand the background to the two novels. Chalandon is a talented writer   who creates a strong sense of place and portrays conflicted emotions,  drawing on real  people and events about which he clearly feels deeply, but in this instance he does not provide any fresh insights. Was I more impressed by his other works because they  are based on situations about which I know less?

“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.

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

La Peste (French Edition) by [Albert Camus]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.

Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky: “When hell is the suffering of being unable to love”

Crime and Punishment: Penguin Classics (Penguin Translated Texts) by [Dostoevsky, Fyodor]

As is too widely known to be a spoiler, Raskolnikov, an impoverished ex-student living in the teeming squalor of 1860s St Petersburg, convinces himself that, as men like Napoleon are revered despite the large amount of bloodshed they have caused, he would be morally justified in murdering an unpleasant old money-lender and stealing from her to pay for his education, to relieve his mother and sister of the burden of supporting him and to spend on deserving needy people and good causes. Needless to say, he botches both the murder and the theft, only to be haunted by violent flashbacks and delusions together with the fear of being caught, compounded by his compulsion to confess his crime to others, not out of remorse, but in disgust over his failure as a self-defined “superior” being to carry out the plan effectively. Immature and arrogant, his mind addled by reading too many theories, Raskolnikov is not easy to like.

Apart from being an in-depth “psychological record of a crime” which must have been ground-breaking when first published in instalments in 1868 , this novel is also an indictment of appalling social conditions, more hard-hitting even than Dickens. It continually slips into farcical parodies of the social attitudes and beliefs of the day, including the dissent to which Dostoevsky himself was drawn as a youth. Raskolnikov’s very name means “dissenter” – from the “normal” way of seeing the world.

A recurring theme is the arbitrary, contradictory nature of morality itself. For instance, Raskolnikov is appalled by the debauched behaviour of Arkady Svidrigailov, who has designs on his sister, but this rogue uses the money obtained from the wife he himself may have murdered, to provide substantial help for a number of needy people, something which Raskolnikov has failed to achieve. Raskolnikov’s “dead soul” is ultimately brought to life by the love of the almost saintly Sonya, who nevertheless consented to work as a prostitute to support her penniless family.

I was initially disappointed by the novel’s style which seems quite stilted and artificial. Yet lengthy monologues to provide an “information dump” or develop an argument were a feature of C19 novels. I could understand that Raskolnikov’s “stream of consciousness rants” might be justified as conveying a sense of his mental confusion and agitation. Yet other characters indulge in them as well, perhaps because the male characters are often drunk and the women hysterical and overwrought.

Finding it hard to decide how much my dissatisfaction was due to the shortcomings of the translation, I tried four, ending with the widely praised Penguin translation by Oliver Ready, and thought that Constant Garnett’s early version also looks good , yet all of them jarred or seemed unnatural at times. This made me wonder whether the challenge of translating into another language, even the vastly flexible and nuanced English, from Russian without losing too much of its essence is just too great.

It’s quite interesting to compare translations. For instance, Oliver Ready has the thirty-five year old Investigator Porfiry Petrovich frequently call twenty-three year old Raskolnikov “father” which is explained somewhere in the notes, but sounds odd. In Pevear’s translation, this becomes “old boy” which is marginally easier for an English-speaking reader to accept. If we could ever agree, an amalgam of translations could be superb!

It’s a matter of taste, but despite grasping the ideas Dostoevsky was seeking to develop, I find the work over-emotional, and too filled with jumbled thoughts of the type one might have in reality, but seek a writer who can unravel them. Bleaker and edgier, less sentimental than Dickens, it is on a higher plane of complexity.

I agree with a reviewer who liked the beginning and end the best. The opening part leading to the dreadful crime is focused, the writing in the epilogue has been described as “delicate” and is marked by a clarity and lucidity like the calm after a storm. In-between is a morass of digressions and ramblings punctuated by a few strong scenes of high drama or tension such as when the cunning Chief Investigator Porfiry Petrovich is playing a cat-and-mouse psychological game with the overwrought Raskolnikov, which would not be amiss in a modern detective yarn, or the confrontation near the end between Raskolnikov’s sister Avdotya, who shows a lot more sense than he does, and the manipulative villain Svidrigailov whose one true emotion is his love for her.

What interests me most about the novel is the extent to which it reflects the life of the author himself and the history of the period. I am sure that the more one knows about this, the greater one’s appreciation of the book. Dostoevsky must have been influenced through being sentenced to death by firing squad as a young man for some, to our minds, relatively minor revolt against the censorship of the day, only to be reprieved literally at the last minute, subsequently serving five years hard labour in a Siberian prison.

This should probably be read at least twice: the first time on a wave of momentum to see what happens, the second time more slowly, checking on, say, the copious notes accompanying the Oliver Ready translation.

“Second-hand time” by Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich: “Cracking the mystery wrapped in an enigma”

Second-hand Time by [Alexievich, Svetlana]

This is an amalgam of largely unedited and at times remarkably frank, no-holds-barred interviews with individuals and fragments of conversations with groups living in the former Soviet Union after the collapse of communism in the early 1990s. The author’s personal experience of life in Belarus, and her obvious listening skills no doubt helped to draw people out.

Patterns emerge from the diverse accounts. Despite the violence, physical hardship and social oppression, those who lived under Stalin’s regime retain a nostalgia for the past which may at first seem surprising. It must be partly due to conditioning from an early age with the propaganda of patriotic songs:
“World capital, our capital/Like the Kremlin’s stars you glow/You’re the pride of the whole cosmos/Granite beauty our Moscow”.

Yet it also seems related to the past pride in being part of an empire, the sense of purpose in helping to build it through fighting on the winning side against Germany, working with one’s hands to develop it, sending Gargarin as the first man into space. There is also the lost “dream of equality and brotherhood”, and drive to “create Heaven on Earth” – the pining for community spirit and mutual support, overlooking the practice of informing on friends and neighbours. The “sovok” (Soviet man) remains appalled by the current lack of idealism, the preoccupation with obtaining consumer goods (“A Mercedes is no kind of dream”) and rewards for the crooks who control the new market system.

Then there are those born after Stalin’s death in 1953, who grew up reading forbidden books, and conducting endless debates in the kitchen about how life might be changed for the better, half-joking over the risk of a bugged light fitting. They were initially seduced by Gorbachev’s “Perestroika”, even daring on his behalf to brave the tanks on the streets in the abortive coup against him. This made their disillusion all the deeper when the unchained capitalism of the 1990s made them the victims of crooks and violent gangsters, creating large-scale unemployment for the first time, forcing even the skilled and educated to sell their possessions and work as cleaners or flog goods smuggled in from Europe, and reducing to destitution pensioners whose savings had become worthless.

I think the title “second-hand time” refers to the irony of how events have come round full circle in some ways: Russia is ruled in 2020 by an ex-KGB man who has made himself into a modern equivalent of an autocratic Tsar. There is even a “new cult of Stalin” with “everything Soviet back in style, but in the commercialised form of Soviet cafes, Soviet salami, Soviet-themed TV shows, even tourist trips to Stalin’s camps. Young people are reading Marx by choice.

The book also covers the horrors of civil war in areas like Armenia and Chechnya, where different ethnic groups who had previously intermingled came to blows once the iron hand of communist control was removed. The second-class treatment, racial and religious discrimination against migrants like the Tajik street cleaners of Moscow is another troubling aspect of recent change.

Does the lack of editing not only create a book of nearly 700 pages, too long for many people to find the time to read it, but also make for excessive repetition, or does the latter serve to reinforce important impressions? I am not sure what a reader with no prior knowledge would make of all this. Even with the useful chronology of political events from 1953, it is sometimes hard to keep track of exactly what people are referring to. Yet I kept coming across sharp observations and vivid insights which encouraged me to read on. I regret that the author did not do more to sift these out for the reader, although you may feel that the rambling, contradictory nature of the text adds to its power.

It sometimes seems as if the typical Russian man is addicted to vodka, continually beating his wife and children. Women are portrayed as neurotic, hysterical and superstitious, with a self-destructive urge to nurture inadequate men, particularly prisoners, down on their luck, who will inevitably repay their kindness with brutality in due course. Westerners, it seems, can never really understand the tortured, sentimental Russian soul…..But despite the frequent oppressive bleakness, this book encourages readers to form their own understanding of a complex situation of mingled brutal tragedy and poignant humanity. It proves a very powerful and informative aid to grasping the current nature of Russian society and how it has come about.

“Le Monte-charge” or “Bird in a Cage” by Frédéric Dard: the fickle finger of fate

Le monte-charge (FREDERIC DARD) (French Edition) by [DARD, Frédéric]

Four years after his mother’s death, narrator Albert Herbin returns to her flat in which he has not set foot for six years and is filled with nostalgia for his childhood and their close relationship. What is the reason for his long absence? Why has he not cleared the place, even to the extent of removing a dead branch from a pot? Why is he so alone, half wanting to be recognised and half fearing it as he wanders the local streets while everyone else is celebrating Christmas? Daring to enter a post restaurant, his attention is drawn to the small child and attractive woman at the adjacent table who reminds him of his past love Anna – but how did she come to die?

As the details of Albert’s life are revealed, he is drawn inexorably into a fateful series of events which make him accessory to a serious crime, but how will it all end?

Bird in a Cage by [Dard, Frédéric]

Reminiscent of Hitchcock, this is one of the most ingenious just about plausible plots I have come across, full of twists leading to an unpredictable outcome, sustaining a powerful sense of anticipation and tension, yet managing at the same time to develop characters, create sympathy for those who have committed horrific acts, and conveys a strong sense of place. Even the abrupt, ambiguous open ending is masterful when you come to reflect on it.

The French title is a play on words, linking the “monte-charge” or cage-like lift, which plays an important part in the tale, to the Christmas tree trinket of a little velvet bird in a spangled cage which Herbin buys on an impulse. This has been translated in the English version as “Bird in a Cage” which has a further double meaning which it would be a spoiler to explain.

The French is so clear and expressive that I imagine it translates easily into a compelling read in English, all contained in a short, well-constructed story which could be read in a single sitting. Made into a film in the 1960s, the book has a cinematic quality, although I think it must lose some of its tension, subtlety and irony in the process.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murato – relative normality

“relative normality”

Logical to a fault, as the other children weep over a dead bird, Keiko appals her mother by suggesting they take it home to cook for her father who has a penchant for eating small birds, grilled Japanese style. This is just one example of the possibly autistic behaviour which sets her apart from “normal people”.  As an adult, despite her university education, Keiko deals with her situation by working for eighteen years in a  clinically bland convenience store, where the rigid routine provides a clear framework to guide her actions, together with the speech patterns and fashion sense of her co-workers for her to imitate. When her small circle of acquaintances begin to criticise her for being unmarried, Keiko comes up with yet another solution which seems pragmatic to her but ludicrous to others.

Although promoted as “hilarious” and “funny”, this book  struck me as quite sad,  in showing how those who do not “fit in” may be  mocked and excluded.  Beneath its quirky approach there lies quite a subtle exposure of the arbitrary, even ludicrous, nature of much accepted “conventional” behaviour, into which people are led by the desire to conform or are conditioned to adopt by, for instance, the promotional offers in the convenience store. Since I believe that Japanese behaviour is more conformist and group-oriented than say, in Britain, a reader may fall into the trap of feeling a little superior, but on reflection, I suspect that  the truth revealed in this book can be universally applied, prompting each of us to question the norms of our own society.

Logical to a fault, as the other children weep over a dead bird, Keiko appals her mother by suggesting they take it home to cook for her father who has a penchant for eating small birds, grilled Japanese style. This is just one example of the possibly autistic behaviour which sets her apart from “normal people”.  As an adult, despite her university education, Keiko deals with her situation by working for eighteen years in a  clinically bland convenience store, where the rigid routine provides a clear framework to guide her actions, together with the speech patterns and fashion sense of her co-workers for her to imitate. When her small circle of acquaintances begin to criticise her for being unmarried, Keiko comes up with yet another solution which seems pragmatic to her but ludicrous to others.

Although promoted as “hilarious” and “funny”, this book  struck me as quite sad,  in showing how those who do not “fit in” may be  mocked and excluded.  Beneath its quirky approach there lies quite a subtle exposure of the arbitrary, even ludicrous, nature of much accepted “conventional” behaviour, into which people are led by the desire to conform or are conditioned to adopt by, for instance, the promotional offers in the convenience store. Since I believe that Japanese behaviour is more conformist and group-oriented than say, in Britain, a reader may fall into the trap of feeling a little superior, but on reflection, I suspect that  the truth revealed in this book can be universally applied, prompting each of us to question the norms of our own society.

Short, neatly plotted, this first person narration in an excellent English translation  proves more thought-provoking than I had expected.

Article 353 du Code Pénal” by Tanguy Viel: Utter conviction (Article 353 in English Translation)

Despite its dry title, this short, unusual novel is a riveting masterpiece.

Under French law, a suspect in initially examined by a “juge d’instruction”, who gathers and evaluates the evidence to decide if it is sufficient to go to a trial. In this case, how can the suspect’s guilt be in doubt? We know from the outset that the narrator Martial Kermeur has pushed his unsuspecting companion Antoine Lazenec overboard during a fishing trip on the latter’s boat, left him to drown and calmly submitted to police arrest, thinking how he would have committed the action anyway, even if the police had been watching him at the time.

Closeted together for several hours, Kermeur recounts slowly to the judge , in great detail how he came to meet the flamboyant property developer Lazenec, and be ruined by him, alongside others in the remote, economically depressed community on the Brittany coast. Kermeur seems to have suffered a tidal wave of misfortune (there being many references to the sea): he has been made redundant, his wife has left him and, manipulated by the wily and ruthless Lazenec, in a foolish moment of pride Kermeur invests his redundancy money in Lazenec’s ambitious scheme to demolish the local chateau and convert the grounds into a holiday resort. When the scheme fails to materialise, Kermeur is left destitute and ashamed in the presence of his young son Erwan, who has always looked up to him.

This is not only a detailed psychological study of the interplay between the main characters, in which the details are skilfully revealed and the tension ratchetted up but also a vivid and moving portrait of a tight-knit community under pressure. Tanguy Viel presents Kermeur’s thoughts in a kind of stream of consciousness, often going off at a tangent, but very expressive. Kermeur often seems simple and garrulous, but he is also sensitive and perceptive, with a wry humour. He does stupid or unwise things, including a serious crime, and yet he arouses one’s sympathy. Justice must be applied to him, but in what form? Is the judge’s final decision justifiable?

Highly recommended for a good read and an interesting discussion. This is definitely best read in the original French, but I understand that the English translation by is good.