HHhH by Laurent Binet (trans. Sam Taylor)

February 15, 2013

There are two books here: One is a fictionalized account of historical events, the other is a book of criticism aimed at historical fiction and the problems inherent in that genre. Before reading HHhH, I, perhaps unwisely, read James Wood’s review in The New Yorker. The wisdom deficiency is in not caring, for I certainly realized, that James Wood’s interpretation and judgment would irrevocably shape my own. So now, although I would like to assure you and, in the process me, that I would have reached conclusions very similar to Mr. Wood’s on my own, there is nothing I can say that would accomplish that task. Much less is there anything I can say that would make it knowably true.

I did just recently read Austerlitz and, thus, almost certainly would have made unfavorable comparisons between that great work and this one. I do not like the narrator of HHhH and I think that is my own genuine reaction. I would not have known for certain, however, that the narrator is, in fact, Laurent Binet and not “Laurent Binet” fictionalized self and relative of Summertime‘s John Coetzee but for Mr. Wood’s providing solid evidence to support that conclusion. I think the book would be more interesting if Binet was a counterpart to John Coetzee. My criticisms then would largely be of the fictionalized author rather than the actual author and it would leave open the possibility that the actual author was aware of the defects in the fictional author’s arguments and presentation.

For me, Binet identifies a difficulty with trying to capture the truth of an historical event, but, rather than proposing an interesting solution (Coetzee’s multiple, subjective perspectives, for instance), he bemoans the problem while also capitulating to it. In fact, he embraces the methodologies he excoriates far more than necessary to accomplish his narrative goal. Woods put it thusly: “Binet has his cake and eats it, and gets to cry over the spilt crumbs, too.”

In other words, the “book of criticism”, as I have called it, unfortunately inextricable from the historical story, is not persuasive. But, it does have me thinking and typing about the intersection of historical truth and storytelling. Truth and storytelling may not be strictly compatible in a reductionist view of historical truth-telling where, unless every fact related is objectively true, the entire edifice crumbles. However, I think Binet is wrong in starting from that reductionist premise. Even the most cursory reflection on the subject reveals that a good story about actual events can never provide the reader with the “objective truth”. Frankly, I think his error is in assuming that it is theoretically possible to write an accurate history from a “god’s eye” perspective the same way Flaubert can write a perfectly objective account of Emma Bovary through omniscient third-person narration. No historian, nor any amateur sleuth bent on writing historical fiction, can attain the omniscience necessary for this sort of narration.

Austerlitz makes this point by nesting points-of-view like Russian stacking dolls: “But I was particularly anxious, Vera told me, said Austerlitz…” We are not getting the story directly from an all-knowing god, rather, the story comes to us from a very human narrator who gets it from Austerlitz who gets it from, in this case, Vera. The contingency of historical facts and the uncertainties of recollections is not ignored, but is used to a purpose. History is somewhat like a game of telephone, we can only hope that the gist of the message has not been lost. Hoping for an accurate transcription of the original is folly.

Binet, though, defies the necessary subjectivity of any account of history. He believes a complete tally of every detail is, theoretically, possible. After one section of fictionalized narrative, he writes: “That scene, like the one before it, is perfectly believable and totally made up. How impudent of me to turn a man into a puppet…To decide that he left in the evening rather than the morning, I am ashamed of myself.” Perhaps he should be, but not for the reasons he proclaims. Binet is so concerned with facts, the minutest details, he falls into the same hole recognized, and avoided, by Austerlitz’s secondary school history teacher (Hilary):

All of us, even when we think we have noted every tiny detail, resort to set pieces which have already been staged often enough by others. We try to reproduce the reality, but the harder we try, the more we find the pictures that make up the stock-in-trade of the spectacle of history forcing themselves upon us: the fallen drummer boy, the infantryman shown in the act of stabbing another…..Our concern with history, so Hilary’s thesis ran, is a concern with preformed images already imprinted on our brains, images at which we keep staring while the truth lies elsewhere, away from it all, somewhere as yet undiscovered.

Binet, I believe, is obsessed with accurately rendering the details of these “preformed images” rather than trying to get at the truth of the matter which does not exist in a detail like the precise expression on someone’s face:

And even if there are clues to Himmler’s panicked reaction, I can’t really be sure of the symptoms of this panic: perhaps he went red (that’s how I imagine it), but then again, perhaps he turned white. This is quite a serious problem.

But it is not a problem, serious or otherwise. It is not a problem for the historian because the historian need not speculate on which color Himmler turned, assuming he changed colors at all. The historian will give us the known facts indicating that Himmler was panicked, but has no need to speculate on the fifty shades of Himmler’s face. It also is not a problem for the fiction writer because these are precisely the details that matter for storytelling but matter not at all for the truth of what the novelist (historical or otherwise) is trying to convey. Whether Himmler turned red or white matters no more than accurately describing from a color palette Himmler’s original skin tone the moment before he heard the panic-inducing news. This fervid focus on the accuracy of cliched details is not brilliance or even intelligence, it is an author lost in a jungle of his own planting. Binet, though, seems too proud of his concern for these facts (is the Mercedes black or dark green?) to recognize the triviliaty of his quest.

41HyeElHR2L._SL160_I quickly found these worried asides both distracting and annoying. Almost as annoying as Binet’s use of, again I will use Wood’s words, the “trick of giving the impression that he is thinking the book through as he is writing…” This novel is obviously a well-polished work of art. Binet even comments within the text on the various drafts and his edits. But then he slips in things like: “Actually, no: that’s not how it is. That would be too simple. Re-reading one of the books that make up the foundation of my research….I become aware, to my horror, of the mistakes I’ve made…” Perhaps yes, but actually no. Yes, he may have discovered an error in that way and he may have been horror stricken, but he is neither now nor when he sent in his final draft, horror stricken at his errors. He has chosen, after much thought and deliberation, to leave them in precisely so, as a character, he can be horrified. Binet by presenting these errors to us for the purpose, presumably, of showing how easy it is to get a detail wrong, makes it much more likely that we will take away from this book errors rather than the facts with which he is so concerned. I remember a number of things about Gabcik, which one of those was I supposed to forget? I cannot remember. Thank you, Mr. Binet.

Binet cannot really have been concerned with me, his reader, nor about a scrupulously accurate story, for he leaves in errors to push his critical point while knowing that readers (primacy effect, etc.) will likely remember untruths he embedded in the text for the purpose of demonstrating how concerned he is with strict, objective truth. At moments like that, Binet seems mostly concerned with Binet and least concerned with his audience.

And that is another mistake Binet makes: He directs the spotlight away from the historical truth he claims he is after and towards himself. The story of Josef Gabcik and Jan Kubis and the many other heroic contributors to the Czech Resistance ends up being eclipsed by Binet’s obsession with the color of the Mercedes in which Himmler rode to his castle. It is a mistake not only because the power of the story is diminished by the narrator’s intrusions (“Gabcik takes out his lighter and touches it to the German’s cigarette. I’m going to light one too….,” Binet writes at one point; at another, he laments: “I don’t even have time to mourn them…,”; perhaps worst: “…[Gabcik] runs down toward the river. And I, limping through the streets of Prague, dragging my leg as I climb back up Na Porici, watch him run into the distance.”). Pulling readers’ attention away from the ostensible heroes is also a mistake because Binet seems to misunderstand the problem of getting history right. In fact, he seems oblivious to the lessons of philosophy and post-modernism generally.

A god’s eye view of history is impossible. His effort to achieve it, or book length whine that he cannot, is akin to a Creationist’s search for the actual site of the Garden of Eden. Binet’s intellectual concerns are obsolete. Any account of the past is necessarily subjective, no matter how scrupulously you verify the make of the bicycle on which Kubis pedalled away from the ambush.

More damningly, this misguided chasing and the artifice he uses to convey it, becomes extremely tedious.

I have mainly cast stones, from the safety of Wood’s skirts, at that second aspect of the book. However, the story of Gacik and Kubis and the Czech Resistance, though not spectacular in terms of either storytelling or language, is both fascinating and important. Binet has done an incredible amount of research and often leaves the main narrative to relate unrelated acts of heroism from World War II, such the sacrifice made by the Kievan soccer team. Those asides add much to the book, giving as they do other perspectives on the times and the resisters’ heroism. They are much better breathers from the main narrative than, for instance, that authorial cigarette break which is wedged into an otherwise enthralling story. The book is good, in other words, despite the major problems I have with the argument Binet puts forth and the manner in which he makes it. This is a book I found well worth reading for what it does right and, too, for what it does wrong. It provokes. Literature that provokes must have done something right.


The Golden Calf by Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov (Trans. by Konstantin Gurevich and Helen Anderson)

February 12, 2013

The Golden Calf is the sequel to Ilf’s and Petrov’s hilariously brilliant first novel, The Twelve Chairs. Ostap Bender, one of the greatest con artists to appear in print, is back from the first novel only slightly worse for the wear. He is as outrageously non-comformist as before and, somehow, Ilf and Petrov find even more ways to skewer not only Soviet society, but civilization and humankind generally. It can only be due to their wild success that Ilf and Petrov managed to stay alive and published at a time and in a place where doing so was not so easy. If their writing was too entertaining for Stalin to kill them, well, need I say more?

In Ostap’s first literary vehicle, the MacGuffin was a set of jewels sewn into one of those eponymous chairs. Here, Ostap sets his sights on the wealth of a secret millionaire: Alexander Koreiko. Being a millionaire in the Soviet Union of the 1930s is a risky business made all the more so when con artist extraordinaire Ostap Bender has caught wind of your stash and wishes to use it to live a life of luxury in South America. The lure of the easy life will take Ostap and his reluctant and ragtag gang on amusing adventures across the Soviet Union. But before that, we must be reintroduced to Ostap and his genius. First, though, a little about pedestrians and automobiles.

[J]ust when everything was ready, when our native planet had become relatively comfortable, the motorists appeared.

It should be noted that the automobile was also invented by pedestrians. But, somehow, motorists quickly forgot about this. They started running over the mild-mannered and intelligent pedestrians. The streets – laid out by pedestrians – were taken over by the motorists….

In a big city, pedestrians live like martyrs. They’ve been forced into a kind of traffic ghetto. They are only allowed to cross the streets at the intersections, that is, exactly where the traffic is heaviest – where the thread by which a pedestrian’s life hangs is most easily snapped.

Cars, specifically one christened “The Antelope”, play a central role in The Golden Calfthis riotous romp. But our good friend Ostap is still a mere pedestrian when he walks into this novel and onto the streets of a small Russian town. He saunters into city hall to meet with the city council chairman. His purpose is to extract money and, perhaps, a few privileges from a predictably naive small town bureaucrat. He does this by impersonating Nikolay Schmidt, the son of the famous hero Lieutenant Schmidt, first name of whom neither he nor the chairman can remember. The setup is reminiscent of Gogol’s 1936 play The Government Inspector which was, apparently, inspired by an anecdote told to Gogol by Alexsandr Pushkin who was himself, three years prior to the publication of the play, mistaken by locals as a government inspector. Ilf’s and Petrov’s treatment comes with an original twist which sets in motion the alliance that powers the rest of the story.

To wit, Ostap’s plan is going mildly well, having produced so far “only eight rubles and three meal vouchers to the Former Friend of the Stomach cooperative dinner”, when a similarly enterprising stranger walks in claiming also to be the son of Lieutenant Schmidt.

This is a very delicate situation for the two con artists. At any moment, the long and nasty sword of retribution could glisten in the hands of the unassuming and gullible chairman of the city council. Fate allowed themselves just one short second to devise a strategy to save themselves. Terror flashed in the eyes of Lieutenant Schmidt’s second son.

His imposing figure – clad in a Paraguayan summer shirt, sailor’s bell bottoms, and light-blue canvas shoes – which was sharp and angular just a moment earlier, started to come apart, lost its formidable edges, and no longer commanded any respect at all. An unpleasant smile appeared on the chairman’s face.

Ostap, ever calm in the most tense of situations, saves them both by pretending they are brothers, two sons of Lieutenant Schmidt reunited by chance in the chairman’s office.

The happy encounter was marked by chaotic expressions of endearment and incredibly powerful hugs – hugs so powerful that the face of the second son of the Black Sea revolutionary was pale from pain. Out of sheer joy, his brother Nick had thrashed him badly.

After the two sons of Lieutenant Schmidt make it out of the city council chairman’s office, they see a third man heading inside. The second, thrashed son, whose real name is Shura Balaganov, recognizes the man as his friend, Panikovsky. Panikovsky’s trade is also to go about impersonating Lieutenant Schmidt’s son. Ostap is going to stop him from a sure beating, or worse, but Balaganov stops him, explaining:

”[N]ext time, he’ll know better than to break the pact.”

Ostap Bender, with his superior con man skills, will of course discover the secrets of the pact, an agreement among the many impersonators of Lieutenant Schmidt’s offspring and the offspring of various other heros. And Ostap will turn this knowledge of the pact, as he seems to turn everything, to his pecuniary benefit. He wants it known, however, that the Lieutenant Schmidt scheme was not a career for him, as it apparently is for Balaganov and similarly pitiable members of the pact. Rather, for Ostap, the swindle is merely a morning’s amusement:

”What happened this morning was not even a phase, it was nothing, a pure accident, an artist’s whim. A gentleman in search of pocket money. It’s not in my nature to fish for such a miserable rate of return. And what kind of trade is that, for God’s sake! Son of Lieutenant Schmidt! Well, maybe another year, maybe two, and they’ll simply start beating you up.”

“So what am I supposed to do?” asked Balganov, alarmed. “How am I supposed to win my daily bread?”

“You have to think,” said Ostap sternly. “I, for one, live off ideas. I don’t beg for a lousy ruble from the city hall. My horizons are broader. I see that you love money selflessly. Tell me, what amount appeals to you?”

“Five thousand,” answered Balaganov quickly.

“Per month?”

“Per year.”

“In that case, I have nothing to talk about. I need five hundred thousand. A lump sum preferably, not in installments.”

The five hundred thousand is to get away from Russia, to the good life in Rio de Janeiro. Rio, as Ostap understands it, is populated by “[a] million and a half people, all of them wearing white pants, without exception.” He wants to make it there because, as he says, he has “developed very serious differences with the Soviet regime.”

”The regime wants to build socialism, and I don’t. I find it boring.”

Ilf and Petrov manage to make the Soviet regime anything but boring. They tread what must have been a thin line, but do so with bravura:

”I used to pay a cop standing on the corner of Kreshchatik and Proreznaya five rubles a month, and nobody bothered me. The cop even made sure I was safe. he was a good man! His name was Semen Vasilyevich Nebaba. I ran into him recently – he’s a music critic nowadays. And now? Can you really mess with the police these days? I’ve never seen nastier guys. They’re so principled, such idealists.”

Presumably, one can only get away with such sarcasm in a country where it was, more or less, legally required that you say such things about law officers, “principled…idealists”, in earnest. Ilf and Petrov take full advantage of facts, like the absence of crooked cops in the Soviet system, to both appease and skewer.

Because I can’t resist:

[Ostap to a young man suffering from nightly “strictly Soviet” dreams:] “The principal cause of your dreams is the very existence of the Soviet regime. But I can’t remove it right now. I’m in a hurry. I’m on a sports tour, you see, and my car needs a few small repairs. Would you mind if I put it in your shed?…”

“So you think there’s hope for me?” [the young man] asked, mincing behind his early morning guest.

“Don’t give it another thought,” replied the captain dismissively. “The moment the Soviet regime is gone, you’ll feel better at once. You’ll see!”

But America, where “people…drink straight from the bottle”, comes in for some ribbing too. For instance, Ostap sells two naïve, Prohibition-era tourists from Chicago a recipe for moonshine.

Ilf and Petrov are comic geniuses. If you want something “serious”, and yet incredibly fun, this is the novel for you. The humor is subtle enough to tickle your frontal cortex, but outrageous enough that you ought not drink milk while reading it. And, of course, there is a Nabokov link. In addition to the blurb Nabokov provided (“…wonderfully gifted writers…first-rate fiction…”), Ostap mentions an “exiled king outfit” which put me immediately in mind of Pale Fire.

I cannot rave about Ostap Bender and his novelistic vehicles enough. Just say “antelope” and I am liable to chuckle.


Skylark by Dezso Kostolanyi

May 15, 2012

Book bloggers are at their best when generating enthusiasm and discussion about a book that, otherwise, has gotten little press or attention. Whether it is John Self at the Asylum generating, via his esteemed and laudatory opinion, sales for Hugo Wilcken’s Colony or Reading Matters’ “Australian Literature Month” or Kevin From Canada (and his fellow Shadow jurors) raising the profile of the Giller Prize (inspiring many, well-executed imitators), book bloggers are becoming more and more instrumental in the process of helping readers locate worthwhile books with which they will connect.

Skylark is a good example of the power of blogs to promote novel deserving a wider audience. I only read this book because of the high praise it has received from other readers:

The Mookse and The Gripes

His Futile Preoccupations…

Sasha and the Silver Fish

Pechorin’s Journal

My Porch

Coverage did get a little kick from mainstream outlets:

Deborah Eisenberg in the New York Review of Books (who also published this book)

However, only with the boost from the trusted bloggers noted above did Kosztolanyi’s novel break out of my “to be purchased” list to my TBR, and, finally, to my “read and loved” list.

Originally published in Hungary in 1924 (preceding the Hungarian masterpiece Embers by a couple decades), Skylark is a very quiet novel focused on the painfully real Vajkay family. Father and Mother live with their adult daughter, Skylark. Skylark runs the household in lieu of employment or a social life outside the family. Her parents love her, but theirs is tinged emotion:

Skylark was a good girl, Akos would often say, to himself as much as anyone else. A very good girl, his only pride and joy.

He knew she was not pretty, poor thing, and for a long time this had cut him to the quick. Later he began to see her less clearly, her image gradually blurring in a dull and numbing fog. Without really thinking any more, he loved her as she was, loved her boundlessly……

He ambled along in his mouse-grey suit until they reached Szechenyi Square, the only square, the only agora, in Sarszeg, where instinctively he strode a couple of paces ahead, so as not to have to walk beside her.

Skylark is a disappointment, an embarrassment. Her parents are unsure how to deal with her in public. The few suitors she has had no longer show any interest in her. The facts indicate she will remain unmarried for the foreseeable future. The Vajkays view this is as mostly tragedy with, perhaps, a silver lining in the time Skylark spends with them as a result, the meals she cooks, and the order she brings to their lives.

Skylark, too, is disappointed in her lack of marriage prospects, but similarly takes some consolation in the help she provides to her parents.

There is a building sense, though, the love they feel is, if not forced, at least strained. Father has dreams in which terrible things are done to Skylark.

He could still see before him the figures from his dream, whom he had encountered so many times before. But even now it staggered him that his precious daughter, who, poor thing, lived such a quiet life, could be the focus of such a horrific and dramatic dream.

After these nightmares he would love Skylark still more dearly.

The lives of this small, unhappy family would likely continue indefinitely in the melancholy existence to which they have become accustomed but for an invitation to Skylark to visit some relatives. Father and Mother are hopeful that Skylark may find a potential mate while she is away, though they dread her absence. Skylark, too, anticipates a refreshing change of scenery and society. The parting at the railway is awkward, none of the three is eager for change, even if for only a week.

The dynamics of the Vajkay family are forever altered by the week apart. They discover things about themselves, the lives they had been living, and the lives they could be living that alter their perceptions of each other and the world. The way in which Kosztolanyi carefully builds the initial state of things and the internal changes of the characters reminded me of The Winter of Our Discontent by John Steinbeck. From some perspectives, nothing at all has changed.

In Steinbeck’s novel, Ethan Hawley makes a decision that, ultimately, alters nothing in the external world or in the perceptions of those around him, but it completely shatters his prior self, the narrative of his life. The Vajkays are similarly altered by a week that is, externally, uneventful. Whether the family will be propelled into externally observable change is doutful, but we know that the family relationships and the way the Vajkays view themselves have been irrevocably twisted into a new, more painful shape. Just as Ethan Hawley will never be able to see the same man in the mirror, neither will the Vajkays recognize their former selves or each other after Skylark’s week away.


The Last Brother by Nathacha Appanah (tr. by Geoffrey Strachan)

February 7, 2012

There is a grand tradition in which old men look back on their lives recounting the moments that made them who they are. It frequently occurs in novels too. From The Fall to Waiting for the Barbarians to The Underpainter, great literature has used this device to provide both distance and immediacy, both wide perspective and intensely personal focus. The character often is not the old man who tells the story. He is but a boy or a young man or even a middle-aged man who does not know, to our narrator’s dismay, what our narrator knows. And, though we know the boy or young man makes it to old age, we still cringe at the dangers he faces because we do not know what his condition will be on the final page.

The Last Brother uses this well-trod device to suck us into a story that yanks more heart strings than most people have. In addition to the (sort of) child narrator, Appanah deploys, in no particular order: natural disasters, clashes of religion, domestic violence, disease epidemics, abject poverty, racism, and, that powerful trump, the Holocaust. The old narrator sees with his young eyes more of life’s worst between the ages of eight and ten than most people see in a lifetime. One almost wonders if the book is some sort of reply to Dostoevski’s The Brothers Karamazov, perhaps a bolstering of Ivan’s anti-theist argument from evil.

This French novel is set on the island of Mauritius, from which Nathacha Appanah originally hails. (Nobel Prize-winner Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio also has “strong family connections” to the island of just over one million people.) Appanah’s novel found its inspiration in real-life events on Mauritius in the closing years of World War II. Her characters are fictional, but all of the large scale events in the novel are historical.

The novel opens in the present-day with a line reminiscent of Camus’ The Stranger: “I saw David again yesterday.” We immediately know that David is significant and, shortly, we know that something has kept Raj, the narrator, and David apart since David was ten years old. Appanah does a magnificent job of withholding enough of the mystery of who David is and why the narrator has not seen him for decades that I will not spoil it, though it is all told within the first six pages.

Most of the story takes place when Raj is nine years old. He lives with his parents and two brothers (Anil and Vinod) on the Mapou sugar cane plantation. The time and place is nicely evoked, as is Raj’s relationship with his brothers. Their father works in the cane fields and they live in a makeshift shelter, not even a shack, that, like every other sleeping place in the laborer’s camp, provides only the barest protections from the elements. The camp is a rock-studded mud hole that turns to an omnipresent dust between harsh rains. Life is hard and the children have to work nearly as soon as they can walk. Anil, Raj, and Vinod (in order of age) have the relatively plum job of carrying water from the nearby river. On these walks, Anil carries a stick, something Appanah uses to nice effect:

Anil always walked with a stick bent near the top into a U, sometimes resting his hand in the crook of it. It was a branch from a camphor tree which had been strongly scented for a while but had then simply become a little boy’s stick. He would twitch the grasses in front of him to drive away the snakes, which terrified us, Vinod and me. Anil adored this stick. It was, after all, the only thing that was really his own, that he did not have to share with anyone at all. It was a source neither of danger nor envy and no one could claim it from him.

We learn both how destitute the family is, how Anil shepherds his younger siblings through the dangers of camp and family life, and how, implicitly, Raj has not even a stick to call his own. There are other little nuggets, including that this stick, unlike the one his father uses to beat them and their mother, is “a source neither of danger nor envy”. Appanah and her translator (Geoffrey Strachan) handle this heavy novel as they do this particular scene, that is with aplomb.

The themes of brotherly love and familial bonds are predominant in this book, as well as the inherently tragic nature of life itself. This is not a light and happy read. Prepare for an emotional wringer. And, yet, the feelings Appanah elicits do not feel falsely won. There was a real story and there is real art in Appanah’s rendering. Neither life nor the novel treat Raj lightly. Given David’s absence from Raj’s life for something like sixty years, we know this period weighs heavily on Raj. Whatever else life has given him or done to him, he is forever marked by that brief, tumultuous time in his youth. Raj’s childhood choices are haunting spectres most fearsome for their persistent presence.

This is a TOB 2012 contender and, given some of the mixed reviews for Murakami’s homage to Orwell’s 1984 (i.e. 1Q84), The Last Brother may have an outside chance at an upset. On the shout-out front, Appanah nods not only to The Stranger with her opening line, but to other great French works too, like Alain Robbe-Grillet’s superb The Erasers. I don’t think a judge would have to be at all embarrassed to pick Appanah’s work over Murakami if the former spoke to them more directly than the latter.

Scouting the judge, however, suggests that 1Q84 and its science-related speculations will perform as expected against Appanah’s much less experimental, much more emotion-driven work. Misha Angrist is a Ph.D. bearing scientist whose bio has this quote:

I suspect that most of our children will have genome scans as a routine part of their health care, to say nothing of their social lives. I want to understand what that world might look like.

The novel of ideas will, I think, prevail.

I am happy to have read the book, happy to have been exposed to new facts about the horrifying plight of Jews fleeing Europe during World War II, and pleased to have made an acquaintance with this author. The book, however, will not appeal to everyone and likely will not go deep into the Tournament. In fact, while I liked it better than The Sisters Brothers, this also is not precisely in my “wheelhouse”. But The Last Brother is exactly the type of book (a serious and readable small press offering) that ought to make it into the lower seeds of the Tournament of Books. Kudos to the deciders on this one.


Kismet by Jakob Arjouni

November 11, 2011

My excuse for picking out this book was that I was searching for something my significant other, who likes crime and thrillers and Germany, might enjoy. This is a detective thriller from Germany. But, having been wrong before to rely on mere signposts rather than evidence, I chose to read it before gifting it.

Alas, the book was not one I would gift. I have relayed the basics (German, crime, thriller) to my one and only, she can choose to read it or not. I am not vested nor am I risking my credibility as a book recommender. The last time I tried this (vetting before wrapping a potentially gift-worthy detective novel) the novel also failed to grip me, so no gift. My ambivalence in making her aware of that one proved wise. She abandoned it. She will probably make it through this one, if she tries it. Still, I am done scavenging for recent release detective fiction that, in some way, can be linked to the literary.

The story begins with protagonist Kemal Kayankaya and a gentleman named Slibusky “crammed into the china cupboard, emptied for the purpose, of a small Brazilian restaurant on the outskirts of the Frankfurt railway station district, waiting for a couple of racketeers to show up demanding protection money.” Kayankaya wise-cracks his way through the wait to the confrontation, noting Siblusky’s smell and the ridiculousness of two grown men hiding in a china cabinet.

This small job, which Kayankaya assumed would require only scaring a couple of low-level punks, turns into something much bigger. The Frankfurt mafia/gang scene soon becomes the focus of Kayankaya’s single-detective agency.

The reason I am not a good reader of this type of crime thriller is that I find jarring the deux ex machina of an author who noticeably intrudes in the story to save his protagonist from that protagonist’s own incredibly bad and entirely unlikely decisions.

A momentary digression: I love The Usual Suspects in which Verbal tells the police detective a tale about an elusive and sinister man named Keyser Soze. Verbal has been arrested, he has to convince the police that he is more victim than perpetrator. In other words, he did not walk into the police station just for kicks, to see what would happen. Moreover, he escapes by his own sharp wits rather than the convenient dullness of his would-be murderers.

Kayankaya’s thought process seems to be: “What is the course of action most likely to end with my body being discreetly disposed of by powerful criminal organizations who do not hesitate to chop off the fingers of shopowners or start gun battles in the streets? Then I will do that and hope for the best.” Of course, with the author on his side, the best usually happens, in the long run. There are, I am told, four of these. I won’t be verifying the claim.

It is interesting (dismaying?) to me that German audiences are, apparently, as immune to ridiculousness in plots as are Americans. Though the thriller does seem to provide a glimpse into modern German culture, I am sure Jenny Erpenbeck, Martin Walser, Eva Menasse, or any number of other contemporary authors provide a more nuanced and insightful depiction of German life. For that matter, I am still slow getting to Thomas Mann and his Magic Mountain. (Footnote to self: Significant dread at tackling the monster suggests Rat’s Chance in Hell Challenge.)

Kismet uncovered for me pitfalls several book-selection pitfalls to which, it appears, I am not immune. First, relying solely on the translator (the esteemed Anthea Bell) is insufficient for ensuring that a particular translated work will match your or a beloved’s taste. Second, that a particular publisher (the also esteemed Melville House) prints the book does not mean, again, that you and the novel will run through flowered fields holding hands. Third, when you know you tend not to find a particular genre satisfying, do not keep blasted trying with unknown, unproven books/authors. Instead of reading books that I know I likely won’t love but hope my intended giftee might like, I should gift books that I love and that she might like. I will let her recommend to me those books from her favorite genre that she loves. Passing mediocre books back and forth would be idiocy. Luckily, I am the only idiot in the house.

So, I did not fall in love with the book. If you do not mind a few absurdly irrational choices by your protagonist for the purpose of an adrenaline rush, then this could be up your alley. For a more positive, less curmudgeonly review, there is always the Washington Post (very possibly to blame for putting this on my radar…though I kept thinking it was a blogger in my sidebar, it wasn’t) or The Independent. Better though, try a blogger who gives a nice, objective overview of the entire series, highlighting both the positives and the negatives.


The Day of the Owl by Leonardo Sciascia

November 3, 2011

I picked up this book on the strength of a review by The Mookse and the Gripes. The book is less a crime novel than a novel that uses a murder to shed some light on Italian and, specifically, Sicilian political culture of the post-war era.

Captain Bellodi hails from the North, so the locals distrust him. A man is gunned down while trying to board a packed bus on a busy street. The many witnesses are not easy to find. As the police attend to the dead man and try to get a handle on the scene, those who saw the shooting quietly disperse:

With seeming nonchalance, looking around as if they were trying to gauge the proper distance from which to admire the belfry, they drifted off towards the sides of the square and, after a last look around, scuttled into alley-ways.

The sergeant-major and his men did not notice this gradual exodus. Now about fifty people were around the dead man: men from a public works training centre who were only too delighted to have found such an absorbing topic of conversation to while away their eight hours of idleness.

The people who cannot escape so easily are no more helpful. A sergeant-major’s attempt to interrogate the bus driver and the conductor provides amusement rather than clues. He tries to strongarm the conductor with threats of making him remember names “in the guardroom”. The sergeant-major wants names.

‘You know this town better than I do…’

‘Nobody could know the town better than you do,’ said the conductor with a smile, as though shrugging off a compliment.

‘All right, then,’ said the sergeant-major, sneering, ‘first me, then you…But I wasn’t on the bus or I’d remember every passenger one by one. So it’s up to you. Ten names at least.’

‘I can’t remember,’ said the conduct, ‘by my mothers soul I can’t remember. Just now I can’t remember a thing. It all seems a dream.’

Living in a post-Godfather world, we know what all this scattering and trauma-induced amnesia means. There is no secret here for us to uncover, nor for Captain Bellodi. The question is what to do about it or, more likely, how to work around it to attain some justice.

Sciascia was a brave man to point out some truths which everyone else, contemplating belfries across the country, would not acknowledge. This book has been extremely important in Italy and, too, must have been influential in American film and literature. Sciascia was lauded throughout his life for giving voice to the corruption within Italian society and politics.

The views of the common man, at least the common criminal, are provided through an informer:

The informer had never, could never have, believed that the law was definitely codified and the same for all; for him between rich and poor, between wise and ignorant, stood the guardians of the law who only used the strong arm on the poor; the rich they protected and defended. It was like a barbed wire entanglement, a wall….[T]he informer asked only to find a hole in the wall, a gap in the barbed wire…Once over the wall the law would no longer hold terrors. How wonderful it would be to look back on those still behind the wall, behind the barbed wire.

These little twists in the tail, “it all seems a dream” and “How wonderful…to look back…”, are delightful. Sciascia jostles expectations slightly or adds just the garnish needed to turn a fine but ordinary observation into something deeper. The insight on what a culture does to one’s outlook is an enduring gift of Sciascia’s work.

The informer is wrong about the law, though, at least as enforced by Bellodi. The captain “regarded the authority vested in him as a surgeon regards the knife: an instrument to be used with care, precision and certainty.” Whereas the informer has been converted to a perverted, if realistic, view of law, Captain Bellodi has, so far, held fast to the idea that “any action taken by the law should be governed by justice.” To that end, he treats suspects and even known criminals with respect as men. For that, mafioso Don Mariano acknowledges Captain Bellodi as a fellow man rather than “a half-man or even a quacker”, though this recognition does not lead him to cooperate.

Their interview recalls to mind the diner scene in the movie “Heat” in which the Pacino and DeNiro characters meet as men, each respectable in their own way. The cat-and-mouse between Bellodi and Mariano ranges from the case at hand to, frustrating the sergeant who sits in, “the Church, humanity, death.”

‘What do you think of [the Gospels]?’

‘Beautiful words: the Church is all beautiful.’

‘For you, I see, beauty has nothing to do with truth.’

‘Truth is at the bottom of a well: look into it and you see the sun or the moon; but if you throw yourself in, there’s no more sun or moon: just truth.’

The interview is one of the highlights of the novel, though there are plenty of those. For me, even little asides regarding America (there are several) were amusing. But the true strength of the novel is in the many ways Sciascia broadens the scope of the novel beyond Bellodi’s hunt for justice with respect to a single murder. Whether the transformation of commuters into admirers of church architecture or an old man’s deriding of democracy and “the people” as “things dreamed up at a desk by people who know how to shove one word up the backside of another, and strings of words up the backside of humanity, with all due respect”, Sciascia helps the reader feel what it is like to live in an ostensibly free and democratic country which, in reality, is controlled by tyrannical forces on both sides of the law.

This was an important book at the time of its publication and remains an excellent read.


A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov

October 4, 2011

A Hero of Our Time is an adventure story set among the Caucasus Mountains and a character study of a Byronic hero, Pechorin. The author claims in his preface that he has created “a composite portrait, made up of all the vices which flourish, fullgrown, amongst the present generation.” The literary conceit of the novel is that it is composed from the journals of the military officer Pechorin. Another character, Max Maximych, came into possession of Pechorin’s journals and passed them on, eventually, to the unnamed writer who is responsible for delivering them to us, with some additional commentary. There is a bit of the Matryoshka doll in the structure.

I read the original translation of Lermontov’s classic and, so, missed out on Vladimir Nabokov’s foreward. Rebecca Stanton has put forward an interesting argument that Nabokov, like Lermontov and several of his characters, tries to dictate the readers’ response to the novel. Also check out His Futile Preoccupations for a nice series of posts discussing various aspects of this seminal work of 19th Century Russian literature.

One of the interesting aspects of the novel involves the parallels between the author and his characters. As many other authors, Lermontov drew on events and specific experiences in his own life to create the people (military men serving in the Caucasus) who inhabit his novel. Lermontov was, after all, a Russian military officer who served in the Caucasus. Lermontov even writes: “Others have observed, with much acumen, that the author has painted his own portrait and those of his acquaintances.”

One of the events on which Lermontov drew, however, was his death two years after completing the novel. Both Lermontov and his character Grushnitsky were drawn into a duel as a result of a joke they played on a colleague. Both are killed. While I would not ascribe any presentimental value to Lermontov’s art, the coinciding characteristics of his life and fiction provide some validation that the adventures he describes are not wholly fantastic. The novel gives us a view, enhanced by the requirements of fiction, no doubt, of life as a Russian military officer serving in the Caucasus. For that alone, it is worth the read.

The tidbits of Russian folklore and the descriptions of the “typical” Russian outlook are fascinating, both for their exoticism and for their familiarity to present day readers.

I was involuntarily struck by the aptitude which the Russian displays for accommodating himself to the customs of the people in whose midst he happens to be living. I know not whether this mental quality is deserving of censure or commendation, but it proves the incredible pliancy of his mind and the presence of that clear common sense which pardons evil wherever it sees that evil is inevitable or impossible of annihilation.

But there is more to the novel than its ability to satisfy the voyeurism of tourists of history and culture. Lermontov’s purpose is, as he says, to highlight the sort of person who was the “hero” of that time. Of course, the sort of charismatic, ethically ambiguous, and ultimately dissatisfied hero Lermontov portrays populates Bryon’s work as well as our daily news. In other words, the hero for Lermontov’s time is a hero for our time too.

Another enjoyable aspect of the novel is the Shandyish nature of the unnamed narrator (the second largest, behind Lermontov himself, of the Matryoshka dolls stacked in the novel). He writes things like:

Perhaps, however, you would like to know the conclusion of the story of Bela? In the first place, this is not a novel, but a collection of travelling-notes, and, consequently, I cannot make the staff-captain tell the story sooner than he actually proceeded to tell it. Therefore, you must wait a bit, or, if you like, turn over a few pages. Though I do not advise you to do the latter, because the crossing of Mount Krestov (or, as the erudite Gamba calls it, le mont St. Christophe) is worthy of your curiosity.

This sort of thing probably does not amuse everyone, but it tickles me.

Lermontov also peppers his tale with references to literature and authors from all over. Byron is, obviously, a heavy influence and is mentioned several times. There are many others:

The history of a man’s soul, even the pettiest soul, is hardly less interesting and useful than the history of a whole people; especially when the former is the result of the observations of a mature mind upon itself, and has been written without any egotistical desire of arousing sympathy or astonishment. Rousseau’s Confessions has precisely this defect – he read it to his friends.

At this point, I am in danger of transcribing all of my many highlights, yet I have not even given a thorough outline of the structure and the story. The Matryoshka dolls are: Lermontov who tells the story of a traveller-writer who relates the story of Max Maximych who has come into the possession of the journals of Pechorin which are then reproduced within the novel. To get to Pechorin, the reader first passes through the story of how the traveller-writer met Max and the story of how Max met Pechorin and came into possession of his journals. The details are entertaining, but there is little need to summarize.

As for Pechorin, he is a man’s man. He womanizes, fights, drinks, and tells stories. As counterpoint, and to make him a bit more interesting, we have access to his private thoughts via his journals. They reveal introspection and doubt about the significance of any of his pursuits or accomplishments. His conquests of men and women make up the adventure and his musing on the meaning of it all provides depth.

The book is quick, but satisfying. I would say of it what someone long ago said of chess: A gnat can sip of it and an elephant can swim in it. There are layers and folds and story enough for anyone. For those looking for 19th Century Russian literature that is easier, though neither less serious nor less dark, than Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, A Hero of Our Time is an excellent alternative.

Okay, another quote:

Or, is it the result of that ugly, but invincilbe, feeling which causes us to destroy the sweet illusions of our neighbur in order to have the petty satisfaction of saying to him, when, in despair, he asks what he is to believe:

“My friend, the same thing happened to me, and you see, nevertheless, that I dine, sup, and sleep very peacefully, and I shall, I hope, know how to die without tears and lamentations.”