“Death and the Penguin” by Andrey Kurkov – modern Kafka’s comic black art imitated by life

What is on the surface the whimsical tale of a lonely failed writer who forms a bond with the penguin he saves from Kiev Zoo when it can no longer afford to feed its exhibits, is underlain by the bleakness and black humour of the searing indictment of a state recently emerged from communism but still bedevilled by acute shortages and corruption.

Viktor is initially delighted to be given what seems like a well-played sinecure writing “obelisks” or obituaries of influential people for a newspaper, until the realisation dawns that he is somehow implicated in the premature demise of the subjects involved. In a modern take on Kafka, he is not quite clear about the nature of the crime to which he is turning a blind eye, but grasps that if ever it is explained to him, it will mean that he too has become dispensable and his own life will be on the line.  The fact that, as a reader, one feels frustrated and a bit wanting in not fully understanding what is going on only adds to the surreal nature of the story.

It is not surprising that everyone seems to consume so much alcohol to deaden their feelings in this grim society. This provides one of the many examples of dark comedy, in which Sergey, the kindly district militiaman who becomes Viktor’s only true human friend, assures a drunken angler that he is “seeing things” when Misha the penguin pops up out of the ice hole in which he is fishing: “Perhaps he’ll ease off the drink a bit” he quips, unable to give  up  policing people’s habits even when off duty, and somewhat hypocritically since he too knocks back large amounts of cognac.

The Ukraine is portrayed as a country in which ambulance drivers have to be bribed to take a sick man to hospital where there is a lack of medicine to treat him anyway, and potatoes seem to be the staple diet, while wealthy criminals will pay $1000 to hire a penguin as a gimmick at the fashionable funeral of a contract killing victim featured in one of Viktor’s obituaries – the irony is endless.

The author does not judge Ukrainians who have been driven to a pragmatic acceptance of corruption,  but describes the lonely penguin, by nature a creature evolved to work in a supportive community, as a metaphor for people living in a post-communist society who suddenly find themselves cut adrift from a mutually supportive community, and alone in a world with new, unfamiliar rules of life.

Having written the novel in 1996, Kurkov has been only temporarily gratified and ultimately depressed to find his art imitated by life in the recent moral and political chaos of the Ukraine. With first-hand experience of  artistic friends liquidated by contract killers, one hopes that this perceptive writer will be safe.

The dramatic climax of this book seems unduly rushed and the ending abrupt, but also quite neat, leaving at least one striking loose end but paving the way for a sequel, or two.

Vernon Subutex by Virginie Despentes – “If it’s crude, it must be good!”

 

 

This is my review of  Vernon Subutex Tome or Volume 1  by Virginie Despentes – read in French, but also available translated into English.

Vernon’s odd surname Subutex is also a medication used for treatment of drug addiction, which indicates the tone of this novel. The former manager of a popular Parisian record store in the heyday of punk, forty-something Vernon has fallen on hard times in the face of competition from digital streaming. On hearing of the suicide of singer Alex Bleach, who has paid his rent for the last couple of years, Vernon’s first reaction is to wonder how he will manage when the bailiffs arrive. His only solution is to sponge off a succession of former friends and lovers, sinking rapidly into life on the street. Self-centred and weak-willed, he retains much of his old charm and power of attraction, appears quite perceptive and resourceful when sober and drug-free, but seems to be going through a kind of mid-life crisis. What may save him in the end is that news has spread of his possession of recorded monologues produced by Alex Bleach, which have gained extra commercial value from his recent death.

The first in a trilogy, this book has won many awards in France, been shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize and made into a television series. It has been praised in glowing terms by critics as a “formidable” portrayal of “contemporary French society”. I cannot agree, since it seems to be mired in a narrow, sordid urban world of foul-mouthed promiscuity, cocaine-addiction, drunkenness, materialism, fascism and violence. A strong thread of prostitution and topical transgender sex runs through it, hardly surprising in view of the author’s previous life as a sex-worker and the themes of her early writing triggered by the experience of rape.

The flimsy plot serves as a vehicle for a series of disjointed portraits of mainly dysfunctional or unorthodox individuals, some of whom seem to play only a passing role, although they may reappear in Parts 2 or 3. Perhaps because the end was in sight, I found some of the later characters more authentic and well-drawn, even to the extent of evoking sympathy: Patrice, the wife-beater who can neither control his emotions nor express true remorse for the violence which has driven away the woman and two children he loves; Sophie, who has been driven a little mad by the death through an overdose of her elder son, a long-term addict for reasons she cannot comprehend.

There is a good deal of stereotyping and cliché in this novel, and I often found the female characters less fully developed and convincing, not counting their ludicrous names (La Hyène, Lydia Bazooka, Vodka Satana, and so on). I found it hard to credit that ex-porn star Deborah would decide, it would seem on a whim, to transition into Daniel, with so little effort or distress, and then be so successful in “mixing with the boys” and having heterosexual girlfriends.

I struggled through this for my French book group, by turns depressed, irritated and bored. The characters have a tendency to indulge in quite entertaining, exaggerated rants, there are some useful idioms buried in all the oppressive obscenity, but having reached the rushed and unresolved ending, clearly intended to make one read Part 2, I do not feel inclined to find out what happens to Vernon.

Privileged with their musical, poetical language, the French seem to delight in “slumming it” with over-rated imitations of the truly great, boundary-crossing, no holds barred novels which somehow “work” much better in English. I happen to be reading Philip Roth’s “The Human Stain” at the same time, which really is “magistral et fulgurant, Une œuvre d’art. Une formidable cartographie de la société américaine” des 1990

“Rupture” by Ragnar Jónasson: Icelandic Christie

 

This is my review of Rupture by Ragnar Jónasson.

This is the fourth novel to be published in the “Dark Iceland” series featuring young detective Ari Thor, newcomer to the somewhat remote town of Siglufjörður in northern Iceland. Chronologically, it should be read after the first novel, “Snowblind” in which the hero Ari is introduced as a novice detective, but before the fourth one, “Nightblind”, in which he has become a father.

I was drawn to the series because a recent visit to Iceland had given me some first-hand knowledge of the country, and the author Ragnar Jónasson captures its atmosphere and character. The long, dark winters, brief bright summers, bleak beauty of the wild landscape, isolation of rural communities, the fact that, however modern and sophisticated on the surface, many Icelanders are separated by only a generation or so from a hard life of self-sufficiency and folklore spun from living so close to the elements, all combine to provide an intriguing backdrop for at times pedestrian but generally well-plotted crime stories.

In Rupture, Ari is still living apart from his former girlfriend, although the two are clearly making progress in patching up their recent rift. When fear of a potentially deadly virus keeps the locals indoors and unlikely to commit fresh crimes for a while, Ari has time to focus on an old case which has resurfaced from the 1950s . Hedinn, a middle-aged man who spent his childhood in Héðinsfjörður, a beautiful but inaccessible valley, has begun to suspect that his young aunt Jorunn did not commit suicide when he was a baby, but may have been the victim of foul play, perhaps connected with a young man, a stranger who appears in some old family photographs. One senses the oppression in the idea of two sisters living with their husbands in this remote spot, trying to make a living out of farming in harsh conditions, with no road link to the outside world. Having come from the capital of Reykjavik in the south, Ari can still feel this, despite the recent construction of the main road which links the now abandoned fjord with civilisation.
Ari is assisted in his investigation by a Reykjavik journalist, herself involved in a parallel case involving Robert, a man with a troubled past who imagines his family is being stalked for reasons which he may know, but be reluctant to admit. How, if at all, does this link with the possible “hit and run” murder of a victim, former friend to the ambitious young Prime Minster who does not need this kind of negative publicity?

The denouement of the Héðinsfjörður case raises some interesting social issues, and could have made a powerful novella. The Reykjavik-based storyline, which does not directly involve Ari at all, has the ingredients for a separate novel altogether, rather than prove somewhat rushed and underdeveloped, almost like a “makeweight” to pad out the whole.

Although page-turners on a first reading, Jónasson’s plots soon fade in one’s mind. I like his exploration of psychology and motivation, but sometimes find the style too simplistic, perhaps because the translation is a bit wooden. Jónasson has devised a formula on the lines of “person found dead usually in remote spot and killer motivated by some psychological trauma”. This will keep some readers hooked ad infinitum but it has started to wear thin for me.

The Woman on the Stairs: never too late to learn


This is my review of  The Woman on the Stairs  by Bernard Schlink.

A lawyer by training, most famous for his novel “The Reader”, Bernard Schlink has a direct, analytical approach to fiction which sometimes seems dry, but can be moving and insightful in its precise, pared style. This novel is apparently inspired by Gerhard Richter’s blurred painting, “Ema” (Nude on a Staircase), based on a photograph of his wife.

A successful German lawyer in late middle-age, the anonymous narrator describes how he came across a familiar painting in a Sydney art gallery: “Woman on Staircase” is the nude portrait made years ago by the now famous Karl Schwind of Irene, when married to the wealthy entrepreneur, Peter Gundlach. The lawyer recalls how, years before, he became embroiled in a bizarre legal dispute, in which the manipulative Gundlach ensnares Schwind in a kind of groundhog day situation, in which he damages the painting in order to summon Schwind to repair it. This is part of a tortuous plan to persuade Schwind to exchange the painting he is desperate to regain for Irene who has left her husband for him.

This intriguing scenario gradually shifts into the serious themes Schlink is perpetually drawn to exploring. It seems he cannot relinquish the troubling question of how, having inherited the moral burden of collective guilt, suffered the pressures of a divided country, Germans should now live. Has the narrator followed false values in pursuing a well-paid career and material comforts? Irene’s desire to break away from being a trophy wife or an ambitious painter’s muse, limited to exploiting her sexual attractiveness, has led her to spend years caring for troubled children, but has she also at one time been caught up in a Baader-Meinhof type terrorist movement? This aspect of the book seems somewhat unsatisfactory because it is underdeveloped.

Schlink also explores at length how with age, we reflect on the past, imagining what might have been, regretting past actions or gaps in our recollection, with belated understanding or self-delusion in distorted memories. The narrator appears to have fallen in love with the idea of Irene rather than the woman himself, whom he does not really know, yet when he at last meets up with her in later years their relationship becomes a vehicle to reveal the price he has paid for his highly controlled and repressed emotions, the product of his upbringing.

I read this novel in a single day, initially finding it a page-turner, but was disappointed that it seems to lose dramatic drive, with the final “Part Three” rather tedious in its lengthy portrayal of the narrator in the, for him, unfamiliar role of caring for Irene in her illness, although I can see that it is probably very realistic. The book builds up to a satisfactory conclusion, but I was left with the sense that a potentially unusual and thought-provoking story has somehow misfired, either through a weakness in the translation, which seemed good at first, or through an uneven development of the wide range of ideas touched upon.

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 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.

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

This is my review of  Checkpoint by Jean-Christophe Rufin

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

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

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

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

Highly recommended overall.