Nager Sans Se Mouiller by Carlos Salem

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I was given this book by Emma: a live, face-to-face handing over of a book, which by itself is a wonderful experience that adds to the joy of reading. This book is a translation from Spanish (Matar y Guardar la Ropa) and, unfortunately, is not available in English.

It’s part of the Babel Noir collection, a series published by Actes Sud. I’m always drawn to the books of Actes Sud: they feature a lot of foreign writers, and I like their covers, the quality of their papers and the legibility of their typeface. But back to the book.

What the reader repeatedly faces throughout the book is how often he/she is taken by surprise about some revelations through simple but quite smart technical maneuvers by Salem. For example, the opening couple of pages present to us a less-than-average Juan, our narrator, taking the elevator of some fancy building together with a cigar-smoking gentleman, a woman and her daughter. He ridicules his curbed posture and realizes what little impression he must make on the woman; a self-derision of 4 pages that ends with the woman and her daughter leaving the elevator leaving me with a dumbfounded look on my face when our unremarkable Juan draws a gun clad with a silencer and shoots our cigar-smoking gentleman right in the forehead. Of course, because it came as a complete surprise to me (not having read the synopsis), I had to re-read the shooting paragraph because I assumed that it was the gentleman who ought to have shot our Juan Perez Perez.

As by now you might suspect, JPP aka Number 3, is a hitman working for a mysterious Enterprise, whose agents are similarly identified by their numbers, receiving targets to be liquidated from the equally mysterious Number 2. Undoubtedly, the reader will be tempted to compared and judge the story against other spy novels but Salem spares us this. Though JPP undertakes trainings, learns manuals and goes through specific procedures before delivering the packages, the codename for liquidating the targets, Salem belittles their significance while going through their technical details. On the one hand, he evades the trap of cheap parody while being humorous and preserving the plausibility of the situation. He employs the same technique with the flashbacks that JPP reveals to us during his apprenticeship under the older Number 3, who dispenses hitman wisdom and tactics to the young JPP while coming up with his own self-proclaimed axioms such as: “Beware of girls with small breasts”.

Humor is omnipresent throughout the book, and a naughty humor at that that made me crack up every couple of pages. For our JPP is sent by the Enterprise, not to deliver a package but to keep an eye on one, to a nudist colony with his 10-year old son and 15-year old daughter. Circumstances have it that he finds his tent adjacent to his ex-wife and her lover, the incorruptible judge Beltran. I’m it surprised by how easily Salem is capable of spinning jokes around this ludicrous situation throughout the book! Another coincidence at the nudist colony, is the presence of his long-lost school friend, Tony, rendered one-eyed by JPP himself in an attempt to protect his friend that went all awry, and Tony’s plastic and ice-cold girlfriend, the imposing Sofia.

Things start to get interesting when JPP is ordered to keep an eye on the owner of a car with a certain matriculation number, a car he knows quite well since it is the one he offered his wife, and which has since changed ownership to none other than Tony, his long-lost school friend. Amidst the heat of the summer, the naked bodies and his own infatuation with the beautiful Yolanda, JPP’s thoughts are all jumbled and he can’t make out what is really going on in that colony and who is after whom. The sudden appearance of another “Number” exceptionally dispatched to the colony complicate matters more and alert him that a parallel plan might be concocted by the Enterprise.

In trying to make sense of the situation he is in, Juan confronts himself, as he wonders who is he? Is he Number 3? Is he the unremarkable Juan Perez Perez? Is he the father of his children who are growing so fast he doesn’t realize it? Is he the son forever in search of the father figure? Is he a player? Is he capable of love?

As such, I conclude this review by saying that I found it quite clever from Salem to be able to introduce such serious questions amidst the sexual humor and the evolving intrigue throughout the book, and in this regard, I found his book quite unique. Because, I wouldn’t say that the intrigue is what holds our attention, nor the humor alone and the reactions JPP makes to the incidents and surprises popping up around him, but it’s a mix of all three rendered in a very entertaining writing style. I wonder the direction that Salem will take with his future books, as I suppose he is quite capable of playing more on the intrigue or more on the subjective elements or even spinning a complex love story in a mystery novel.

PS: In the “Thank You” section at the end of the book, I was surprised to read that Carlos Salem thanked, among others, a particular bookstore in Lyon, with the name of… “Au Bonheur Des Ogres“! I didn’t get the chance to visit it while I was there, but it’s cause enough for me to return back to Lyon.

Vengeances by Philippe Djian

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I had the pleasure of reading this one with Emma from Book Around The Corner and the fortune of actually meeting Emma and chatting with her about Vengeances over some (quite) hot beverages.

Vengeances left me with a sense of unease and I had the feeling that the ending was botched up and incidents quickly wrapped up, though the book is fairly short (< 200 pages) and so I suppose that a couple of additional pages wouldn’t have hurt anyone and would have cleared up some of the ambiguities of the book.

Ambiguity is what characterizes this book. The opening paragraph is a first-person narrative told by Marc, the main character of the book, whose son, Alexandre, apparently struck by something, shoots himself in the head in front of his father’s neighbors, days before Christmas. Before proceeding with the content of the book, its ambiguous character is reinforced by the use of the double perspective: first and third person narratives alternate in almost regular succession throughout the book. Of course, one notices the difference in tone between the heartfelt and subjective first-person narrative and the impartial and rather cold (in comparison) third-person narrative. At first, I was irritated by this, especially that neither brings anything additional to the events of the story, and either method could have been dispensed with, but then I realized that the third-person narrative is used to lend credibility to the first; after all, how much can one trust a storyteller who was under such a shock? This comforts me when I came to the last paragraph of the book which is told in the voice of Marc, and so I was able to assume that this is how things rightly ended.

Ambiguity also extends itself to the content of the book. We never know for certain why did Alexandre commit suicide. With such a spectacularly tragic start of the book, one assumes that the elucidation of such an act, or at the very least its effect on the father, the changes that it brings on the father, would take center stage of the book, that is not the case. The explicit alteration in Marc’s life is that his companion Elisabeth leaves him and he “adopts” a drunken young girl, Gloria, who throws up all over him in the metro.

In fact, that is what I like about the book. Few of the plot changes are predictable, yet without them being shocking to my taste. The relationship between Marc and Alexandre is faintly felt throughout the book and for a reason: Marc never really matured to be a father, he never managed to let go of his past’s little cocoon: a tripartite relationship involving Michel, his best friend, agent and promoter of his creations, and Anne, Michel’s wife, whom Marc screwed (Djian’s word) for over a year before she ended up marrying Michel. Anne and Michel offered Marc the sustainable chance of indulging in alcohol and drugs at will, of vacationing together and attending gallery exhibitions and other similar events.

This tripartite relationship is at the heart of the book, and Djian manages to bring in a sweet mix of subtlety and aggression in painting the characters and evoking the transformations in the plot. Starting with such an aggressive act as the suicide of the son, we are, page after page, led through the implicit complicity that ties Anne, Michel and Marc together to the point where Marc’s first wife felt completely left out from it. Gloria herself starts off as an aggressive character yet her destabilizing of the trio’s relationship is done quite imperceptibly, with insinuations rather than explicit words or actions. I loved how a character like her could destabilize their age-long relationship, and it seemed so logical in such a double-faced relationship, on the surface solid, its fibers loose: for the adults of the book, Anne, Michel and Marc, are not really adults. They are characterized by a scarring egoism. Their ethics are meager and can be summed up with “ne se laisser pas aller” (not to let go, not to be dragged into).

Writing this post helped me realize that there is more to this book then when I turned over the last page. Djian’s writing – strangely even the portrayal of adults – reminded me of Ann Beattie’s writing in Chilly Scenes of Winter. That said, Djian’s writing comes off as more colorful, more sarcastic – I would even risk sardonic, and smarter. I very much appreciated when he writes the following, when Marc, unbeknownst  to Gloria, is surprised by her presence in a shady area:

J’avais passé les dernières heures à m’interroger sur ce que j’avais vu, et j’avais très envie de lui en parler, mais j’avais peur de commettre une de ces maladresses qui peuvent à jamais ternir une vie, la flétrir, la ronger, j’avais peur de la faire fuir en la poussant dans ses retranchements et de perdre alors tout espoir de sauver quoi que ce soit

My translation: I had spent the last hours wondering about what I had seen, and I really wanted to tell her, but I was afraid to commit any of these blunders that may forever tarnish a life, make it fade, gnaw at it, I was afraid of scaring her, pushing her to the wall and then lose all hope of saving whatever is there to save

Emma informed me that Djian’s earlier writing was lighter in tone, and when I will read him again – because I will – I suppose I will be considering one of his first books.

Au Bonheur Des Ogres by Daniel Pennac

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English title: The Scapegoat

I liked this book. I really did. Why? Because I enjoyed it. I thoroughly did. Simple answer, but it isn’t to me. I’m always searching for “serious” books, books I want to learn something from, books that challenge my thinking, get me to ask questions.  But I don’t know why I fixate on this, since I know that I rarely (if ever) learn anything from literary fiction, and so I should remind myself that “learning” is not why I read fiction. If a book, or indeed any work of fiction, deals or addresses these general issues like spirituality, socialism, feminism, etc… whatever the complexity of the work, to me, the scope of the study will always remain narrow. The writer, or the director, or the composer, never really offer a thorough study or an alternative to the issue they discuss, but at best they might offer characters that symbolize the pro or the con, characters who might react differently or strangely under the circumstances set out in the work of fiction.

I don’t say to belittle works of fiction, on the contrary, but to reaffirm the limited study possibilities given the choses medium. What I get is a slice of society magnified to a point that engulfs me in a matter of pages and so I gradually find myself connecting or disconnecting from this microcosm laid out before me. And I love or hate or am warmed up or disgusted and this playing on emotions and feelings is what captivates me and always leaves me with the sensation that I exited a world of a different dimension once I near the end of a book. As grand as the scope of the study might be, a work of fiction remains to me the opinion of the writer, his wishful thinking, her vision or reactions towards circumstances, but not more. If I want to learn about a culture, or about a historical period, or about the evolution of a thought, I would consider a book of sociology, a historical study, a philosophical treatise, a political snapshot of a time period… And I know I would struggle with them, and they will rarely provide me any joy… until they incorporate the lives of real people, when their period studies start to borrow from literary techniques, when out of the blue a study of the Gulag becomes visible through the exchanged love letters of a prisoner and his wife (Orlando Figgs) or the daily actions and decisions of unknown Arabs in tumultuous times (Robert Fisk) whose names become familiar to me like those of Emma Bovary or Eugénie Grandet. In such works, I find again the joy of reading, for the sake of reading.

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Which brings me back to this little gem, Au Bonheur Des Ogres, whose author I knew of via Emma’s “Book Around The Corner”. This story is the first of a saga of 6 books, and I don’t normally fancy tying myself to a saga, but since this one was the first, and readily available to me, and I trust Emma’s recommendations, I thought what could go wrong…

This book is what I personally insist on fiction being: fictitious. Fictitious to the point I don’t have to worry or to question about how realistic the people or the events might be (thankfully, not in a science-fiction style though!) Belleville, where the action of the book takes place, is very much real. In a Magasin, constantly referred to as such, an old man is torn apart by an exploding bomb. This act is repeated and the main character is thus mildly suspected as being the perpetrator. I wonder had this book was published in this or the past decade if the author would have employed exploding bombs or would have resorted to other deadly means to stay away from any political insinuations, but I’m glad the book was published at a time where apparently such a consideration was not relevant.

But my feverish gulping of the pages of this story does not lie in the whodunnit aspect of the police investigation (although it exists but is quite weak as a denouement for the exploding in-store bombs), or in the slice of the working life, or the working mechanism of any modern institution that renders it in need of scapegoats, as the writer makes clear.

No, I was interested in the main character, Malaussène, and his strange surrounding: his family of two brothers and three sisters, his colleagues, his transvestite friend and his language, since he is the narrator as well. It’s a 284-page book with larger than normal typeface (my Folio at least) so it’s quite the fast read, and Pennac manages to create such a microcosm of characters in 5-7 page chapters. I couldn’t wait to read more about (and am looking forward to the consecutive books) sweet Clara and how her obsession with photography will develop, or what kind of quirky things Therese will think and say, what verbal and physical mischief will come out of little Jérémy, and how the relationship between Malaussène and his sister will develop, amidst more up-coming bizarre incidents, I’m quite sure, in a write style of the funniest.

I don’t think I ever quite readily and happily paused my reading to check out the definitions of the French slang dispersed here and there by Pennac and reread the paragraphs for the pure joy of it. And this is my own love affair with literature. This is what I personally “learn” from literature, and this is the pure pleasure it offers me.

I wonder how the book reads in translation, I suppose it will be a hard one to translate. It seems to me that there are two types of book that will never translate well: the seriously highbrow literary works and those of the everyday of slang, those that employ the living language one loves to hear daily (not that the two are mutually exclusive).

Therefore, I conclude this review with a list of French slang I learnt ( and I believe I still know the definitions of most of them) which I post to you in the hope that these words offer you as much a laugh as they gave me:

Papelard, costard, plumard, mastard, mouchard, loufiat, bicher, zieuter, finasser, schlinguer, roter, pieuter, marner, galoche, godasse, chiourme, mezigue

 

Chilly Scenes of Winter by Ann Beattie

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Thank God for the Kindle, without it, I wouldn’t have been able to read this book. At the very least, it would have taken me 4 weeks to get it. She is more known for her New Yorker short stories, but Chilly Scenes of Winter is a novel. Her first, published in 1976.

It is the story of Charles whose girlfriend has left him. She left him to go back to her husband leaving Charles completely down. I can’t use any other word than down, because Beattie herself refrains, as much as possible, from employing adjectives or describing the state of her characters. I found that she employs descriptions when referring to the weather. And I loved her writing. After the first two pages (or the first dozen locations since I read it on the Kindle), I noticed how much sentences end with he says, she says, Sam says, Charles says.

 

“Hi,” Sam says to Elise, walking back into the living room.

“Hi,” Elise says. She does not move over on the sofa.

“Move over,” Sam says, sitting down next to her. “How’s school?” He says to Susan.

“I’m sick of it”

“Beats walking the streerts,” Sam says.

Sam, Charles’ only friend, and Elise, the friend of Charles’ sister, Susan, end up spending the night together. But this does not matter. Virtually, nothing outside of Charles’ brooding over Laura leaving him matters in this story, but I found, that because the writing is so stripped-down, and the others characters’ actions so insignificant, that I started to pay attention to their little details, like walking, or sitting down, or turning on the car. It feels like a long-camera shot in a movie, where the viewer cannot avert his/her eyes, and gradually realizes that this is what the movie is about.

Charles and Susan’s mother is suicidal, or so she seems, according to Charles. She tries to kill herself three times throughout this short book, and at every attempt, Charles reacts as calmly as possible, as if news of her attempted suicide have become so commonplace to him, they don’t induce any reaction from him.

“I’m so glad you’re here.”

“What’s the matter, Mom?”

“If you weren’t there I was going to kill myself, I’ve been in the bathtub, trying to get the pain to go away. The pain won’t go away.”

“What are you talking about? Where’s Pete?”

“Is the appendix on the left or the right side, Charles? I think that must be what it is.”

“Susan,” Charles says. He gives her the phone, walks away, still trying to undo the lid.

The little plot knots are laid out pretty early. When Charles drives his sister to check on their mother, he tells the latter “I despair of your ever acting normal again, but I do want you to be all right.” This sums pretty much how he feels about the people that cross his life, and maybe even about himself. Charles, despite his growing obsession with getting back Laura, acts as a stable rock to people around him

Sam, his friend who could have had a better future, and is instead selling ties and shirts at some store, finds himself suddenly unemployed and unable to afford rent. Charles offers him to stay at his place. His ex-girlfriend who ran away to California following her lover, thinking she is a lesbian, calls him to ask for a place to stay, and he offers her his place for a while. Without any resentment, without demanding anything in return, he is helpful towards others.

That said, Charles spends most of his time wallowing in sorrow over Laura leaving him. I was worried the growing references towards things Laura made or said or even baked might make Charles seem pathetic and the book a bit cheap with sentimentality, but on the contrary I felt that Beattie perfectly captured what it must feel for a guy to be heart-broken, painting pictures of everyday changes in a typically masculine fashion.

She was Laura’s friend. He wants to think that she knows all about the two of them, but Laura said that she never told anybody. He wishes she had; then he wouldn’t doubt, as he sometimes does, that it happened at all.

He rests his head against the foggy side window. He closes his eyes and imagines scenes that never took place: he and Laura went to the beach, and he she got sunburned and he rubbed Solarcaine on her back; Laura cooked a ten-course Chinese dinner for him, have him a surprise birthday party

Laura buys plants that are dying in the supermarkets – ones that have four or five leaves, marked down to nineteen cents, because she feels sorry for them. Couldn’t she feel sorry for him?

Beattie-Adelman

I don’t remember saving so many quotes that reflect the inner state of a heartbroken man, as I did with this book. In a Paris Review interview, Beattie seems offended when the interviewer repeats to her that she was once known as the voice of a generation, and she finds this belittling to a writer. I’m glad she replied this way, because I for one am not an east coast guy who grew up in the late 70s, (Beattie’s generation apparently) and I was drawn to that book and couldn’t put it down. Apparently, she is capable of understanding what Lebanese men who lived through a civil war go through. Of course, this all sounds ridiculous and, in my opinion, applies to second-rate writers who rely on current events and newspaper clippings to produce their innumerable works.

While I was searching for this book, I stumbled on some review that described this book as extremely funny. I’m not sure if this a correct description it. I can understand the bizarrely humorous touches in the conversations between Pete, the husband of Charles’ mother and Charles. But that’s all what they are, to me, touches:

“If you ever want a good car wax, let me recommend Turtle Wax,” Pete says. “That’s really the stuff.”

“I’ll remember that,” Charles says.

“No you won’t” Pete says.

“Turtle Wax,” Charles repeats, not wanting to have to hear again that he doesn’t like Pete.

Yes, this might sound funny, but this is a conversation that was going in the parking of the hospital where Charles’ mother, Clara, is being kept under psychological and medical care following her suicide attempt. The relationship between Pete and Charles reflects the inversion of the roles where Charles seems the steady one, and Pete the drunkard who flies off to Chicago on business trips when his wife’s state is the most fragile, who calls at inappropriate times to tell Charles he bought a car, who refers to Charles’ mother as Mommy and who has no clue about taking care of her, and has to get the support of Charles (even if only a moral support) whenever something strikes Clara.

In conclusion, I loved the book. I will give it a 5-star rating on my Goodreads profile. It feels quite modern, in that the it rests on this question-to-be-answered: What will Charles do now that Laura has left him? It is such a trivial question in comparison to the psychological state of his mother who runs the risk of killing, or badly hurting herself, at any moment. What reassures us that nothing will happen to the mother is, weirdly, a 60-year old inefficient teenager, whose ridiculous presence acts as a safeguard against her destructive nature. The lack of any ornamental language makes the characters stand out for how they truly ought to be, even though we see them through the eyes of Charles.

Best European Fiction 2012

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I hesitated to buy this book because it had this ridiculous superlative “Best”. But then the cover auto-remedied its own deficiency by declaring that this collection is edited by Aleksandar Hemon with a preface by Nicole Krauss, both writers I have previously read and liked in The New Yorker.

I read this book in complete web2.0 seclusion: my smartphone was on airplane mode, I had no access to wifi, no access to any library or bookstore or human being to share my reading with, and so this book proved particularly difficult for me. I wonder if one is “permitted” when reading collections to skip some stories when nothing makes sense anymore…

The idea behind this collection is that Hemon selects one story from each European country, or more precisely from each European ethnicity. This is the reason why Spain, for example has 3 stories translated from Galician, Castilian and Catalan. Surprisingly, Italy has none. The stories are grouped according to 8 themes: love, desire, family, thought, art, home, work, evil. Apparently, special effort was given to translation, as Krauss notes it in the preface: there are writers and translators’ biographies and I appreciated that. When I had access to wifi again, I checked Dalkey Archive, the publishers of this collection, and it seems they specialize in publishing out of print books, writers that few publishers want to work with, and of course works in translation, precisely because American audience, publishers claim, are not too keen on translated works. Their website even has a growing page of interviews with contemporary writers, such as: David Markson, Cortazar, Kundera, etc…

Belgium

Under the category Love, I liked Patricia de Martelaere’s (Belgium: Dutch) My Hand is Exhausted, a story about a pure moment of love between a painter and her model, examining along the way painting, or perhaps the creative process, as impossible to separate from the emotions of the creator. I loved the character of Esther, a woman who endures her monotonous life while being fully conscious of its monotony.

Esther lets them talk and listens. She listens very carefully, but actually she’s not listening. Listening is a form of looking . Watching how a face changes when the lips form words.

She despises them because they come all the same. The only ones she doesn’t despise are the ones who don’t come.

Spain

This Strange Lucidity by Augustin Fernandez Paz (Spain: Galician) tells the story of the beginning and the end of a relationship told from the perspective of the guy’s dog. I had to re-read the first passage because I could not imagine that the main narrator would be a dog.

I’m not blaming him, routines end up sticking to the skin as if they were part of us. When I think about it, everything I do is a routine. If you could see me, you’d realize, after standing by his side for a few minutes, that I always grow impatient and start running up and down the pavement, without ever leaving the area between the corner shop and the greengrocer’s. Sniffing here and there, at tree trunks, lampposts, garbage corners, building walls.

Santiago Pajares’ (Spain: Castilian) Today is a story that I loved because it’s one of the few that I found quite funny. It deals, as its title tells, with the protagonist’s daily life, his one and a half relationship which at the start of the book has ended and the changes that happen with him at work, changes against which he has no saying. I think we all find ourselves in such a situation when we decide, today or tomorrow, that we will be changing something with out daily routine, something to keep the negative vibes away.

It’s not that I haven’t gotten laid in a year and a half, of course that’s not it. I’ve had sex with three women. I met all three in a bar – not in the same bar – and I asked all three if they wanted to get breakfast the next morning, but they all declined. They had to get to work. All three of them worked on Sunday.

I work for a technology company, a midsize company that’s been acquired by large corporation, so that even though I still work in the same office, and the majority of my colleagues are still around, our logo is different now.

Ireland

Desmond Hogan’s (Ireland: Irish) Kennedy left me quite disappointed. I was looking forward to the Irish stories in this collection, but this one felt bland, and talks about difficult neighborhoods, crimes, etc… The opening paragraph made me want to skip it, but I thought it would be unethical to do so: A nineteen-year-old youth is made to dig a shallow grave in waste ground beside railway tracks near Limerick bus station and then shot with an automatic pistol.

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Estonia

One of the stories I loved was Armin Koomagi’s Logisticians Anonymous. It’s funny and smart, and talks about an expert in logistics who is so efficient in his work and in reorganization of businesses that he once fired himself to improve efficiency. It’s quite a different take at the current corporate world obsessed with cost-cuttings and competitiveness and its implications on our own daily lives, us who populate the corporate world.

The order in which I laid down my clothes on my chair before going to bed, the precision with which I portioned out the toothpaste onto my brush each morning, likewise how precisely I could fold toilet paper into the right shape for wiping my bottom, in what order I placed groceries in my refrigerator, and the logical means by which I conjured the last drop our of the ketchup bottle – none of this earned me the faintest esteem in my wife’s eyes.

France & Norway

France was “represented” by Marie Darrieussecq, and this was another disappointment as the editor chose a sort of a preface she wrote for the catalog of photographer Jeurgen Teller’s exhibition. On the other hand, I was completely taken by Bjarte Breiteig’s Down There They Don’t Mourn. In this story a student at a vocational school takes an escape from his swimming class and together with a friend goes on destroying the content of the classrooms along with the students’ projects. The violence that is quite visible in his acts made me wonder why a Norwegian would write about violence and destruction until I read the author’s biography bit in the book, and recalled the massacre that Anders Breivik committed.

He slaps his hand against the kiln door and laughs when he sees me jump. He gropes his way along the far wall, opens the supplies cabinet, and shoves everything aside. The he climbs up onto the shelf. The door creaks shut after him, and for a few seconds I hear him rummage around in there, but then it goes quiet. I figure he’s just sitting there waiting for me to open the cabinet, and when I do, he’s going to let out a roar or throw something at me.

This story is one of the reasons why I liked this collection and even ordered the 2014 one. In a quick glimpse of 10 pages at most, one gets a feeling of a distant society and the issues that people have to deal with. Strangely, this reason is also why I find foreign literature difficult to read, since I sometimes am not familiar, except vaguely, with the socio-political construct of a certain country, or with the personal background of a particular writer.

Switzerland & Serbia

Another disappointment was Noelle Revaz’s (Switzerland: French) The Children. It’s the story of the children of a pension who, one day, are asked to gather in the yard and the headmistress informs them that she and her husband must leave to attend to a certain matter and will be back later during the day. She gives them advice on what to do during her absence, and the extends those advice to matters they might attend to at night in the case of them being late. Over time, the time the headmistress and her husband grows longer and the advice become of a different nature than simple chores. I though the story had amazing potential but towards the end it felt a bit moralizing and too literal for my taste.

Michael Stauffer’s (Switzerland: German) The Woman With The Stocks is another light story that I enjoyed because Lebanon was not affected by the financial crisis that hit the US and Europe and this short story provided another take on the effects of this crisis on normal people than the news did with their grim coverages and the political orientations their stories take.

Marija Knezevic’s Without Fear of Change is a nice, light story about career change, and changes in general in our lives, told from the perspective of an actress in a telenovela whose role in the soap opera goes into a series of changes as a result of the personal changes that go into the love lives of the producer of the show.

Netherlands

Sanneke Van Hassel’s Pearl is one of two disturbing stories in this anthology. It is the story of a woman who becomes pregnant against her wish and the changes this pregnancy brings to her daily life and to her relationship. The story disturbed me because it made me wonder what system of values do we still possess in this day and age? And incidentally what is this moral reference point that keeps but also reinforces our humanity.

I hunt through my old college books for heroic role models from literary history, becoming absorbed in confessions by Anne Sexton and Sylvia PLath. The head in the oven, tea towels under the kitchen door. Poets of dispair, stylizing for all they’re worth. Sometimes I read a story by Colette; She perseveres in love, despite the ragged edges, the insoluble tensions.

Finland

Passiontide by Maritta Lintunen is a story I enjoyed reading, because it was written without any complexities, no confusions with respect to time or characters and it deals with family. It is the story of the 70-year old narrator who opens the story lying on the ground, amidst cake ingredients. We later learn that she slipped on the ground while preparing food and baking desserts for her boy who will be visiting her during Easter. The story is told from this perspective, a helpless old lady, stuck to the ground, listening to the radio programs, and with no food nor liquid available except those that dropped to the floor when she slipped. Such a story would not be deemed credible in Lebanon: it is impossible, no matter where one lives, that one ends up spending 5 days on the floor of his/her own house without somebody calling or passing by or being worried of them not calling or passing by. But this is another contrast between societies, made stark through the power of short stories.

The first thing I saw was round, domed shapes: golden brown and yellow, smeared with egg whites and sprinkled with sanding sugar – dozens of little buns scattered before me. [...] I took all of this in without understanding any of it, and then drifted off into a deep sleep once more. I woke up again, after an indeterminate period of time, to the same view.

Germany

The Case of M, by Clemens Meyer is a story inspired by true events of a pedophile. If I got it right, the pedophile’s actions are told by an inmate, a rapist but not a pedophile. What’s disturbing about it is the recounting of the stalking of this little 8-year old girl. It has such a narrow focus that the reader doesn’t have the space to breathe, and it felt quite plausible, before I knew it was a true story, that it made pedophile stories one hears about in the news more real because they could happen anywhere, in the blink of an eye.

You had enough time, mind you, you spent days watching her, imagining over and over what it must be like, how it must feel, but when you’ve done what you’re planning with her, what then? And where do you put her? You didn’t think of convincing her to keep quiet, like some pedophiles do, did you? No, you came straight out with the tape when she’d only been sitting on the sofa for two minutes.

CONCLUSION

All in all, I liked this collection. The stories weren’t all straightforward and easy to digest, but their advantage to me – and this was highlighted in the preface – is that they gave me a different take on the issues that are affecting Europe. By a different take, I mean different from the one I get reading newspapers and magazines and blogs. These stories present characters, they take the time to develop the characters and their surroundings, even though they are short stories, they showed me how ordinary people cope with the changing world. Packing the lives of ordinary people in short stories, offers the reader the much needed advantage of staying away from political colorings that frequently taint the news as reported by the media. Lives change independently of political strategies, partisan calculations or changes in economic orientations. The human being will find methods to cope, some are time-tested, some are unorthodox, some are criminal and some decide to just quit.

L’Homme de Kiev (The Fixer), by Bernard Malamud

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I read this book with a certain prejudice towards Malamud, and here’s why

I came to know of Malamud through the New Yorker’s podcasts. In one of them, Alexandar Hemon who edits the Best European Fiction Anthologies, chose to read Malamud’s “A Summer’s Reading”. The fiction editor at the New Yorker, asked Hemon why he though people no longer read Malamud as before, and he said, though meaning well, that it’s because Malamud is a 19th century writer. And so, naturally, I read the book looking for little clues that would make me pop with Aha! 19th century feeling here!

That said, I don’t know to which 19th century Hemon was referring, but this is a fiction book based on a true event and that made me think of the Goncourt brothers, among others. Had I known this fact beforehand, I wouldn’t have read the book, but I was excited to find a book by a Jewish author in Lebanon that I bought it without much thought about it.

The original title of the book is The Fixer and it won the Pulitzer prize. It is based on the Mendel Beilis affair who was wrongfully accused of ritual murder in Kiev in 1911 – 1913. The book was even made into a movie in 1968 starring Alan Bates. This is my problem with such books: how can I differentiate between fact and fiction, and therefore, judge Malamud’s writing skills? How do I know if Malamud adopts the protagonist’s views, and as a result, his own ideas. mendel beilis

L’Homme de Kiev is the story of Yakov Bok who is abandoned by his wife after years of childless marriage and who consequently takes the decision of leaving the shtetl, now that he is humiliated by his wife, and making the realization that after years of hard work there, he still finds himself in complete misery.

Against the admonishing of his father-in-law not to venture outside the safety of the shtetl, Yakov takes his tools, for he is a fixer of objects, and heads towards Kiev. No sooner is he outside of his familiar surrounding, that the real feeling of anti-semtisim starts filtering through, and he finds himself needing to conceal his real identity even to total strangers whom he helps or requests their services.

The atmosphere in Kiev isn’t better, and the rampant atmosphere of anti-semitism checks his resignation to find a better situation outside the shtetl, and he is forced again to seek refuge in the Jewish quarters of the city. One night, he stumbles on the immobile body of a drunken old man out in the cold, and decides, though he notices the black and white symbol on his coat representing the two-headed eagle of the Black-Hundreds (an antisemitic group) to help his daughter pick him up and secure him home.

His good-deed is well rewarded, first by securing employment at Nikolai Maximovitch’s (the drunken anti-Semite) house, and later, having proved his worth, by being offered the job of supervisor at Maximovitch’s brick factory. Though he is not supposed to work, nor reside in the quarter where the factory is located, he decides to brave the established rule and accepts the employment, at a rather generous salary, by maintaining his newly-assumed false identity.

Diligently working, he, naturally, encounters opposition from the workers and the superior, as he confronts them with their attempts to steal from the owner. His salary allowing him some delicacies hitherto unknown to him, he believes to be enjoying this new life, and it seems to him that his decision to venture outside the shtetl was the right one.

The above part is the one I find quite brilliant in this book. Because he “established” himself under his new identity, and was now finally able to enjoy – as much as this word can be used to describe the working class of the time – he also experienced some security; security, from the bigotry of Kiev’s social life at the time, that he kept delaying procuring himself fake papers attesting to his false identity. This is quite smart and I think it applies to people who are racially persecuted as well as to people outside of their “natural habitats” who defy traditional wisdom and believe they can make it outside their comfort zones, and if all things proceed normally, they are given a brief respite and are allowed to relish this new freedom, or this new situation, only to be violently pulled back to the reality. Of course, the message out of this is a pessimistic one: never trust in the goodness of people, always be on your guard. I wonder how many Jews who immigrated from Eastern Europe have instantly identified with Yakov Bok’s situation, right there, in his constant delaying of procuring himself these securing documents.

Yakov wakes up one morning to the hysterical sounds of the residents around him, and finds out that a child of 12 years old, who have been pestering his factory every once in a while, was brutally murdered. This is the wake-up call, and attempting to clear his stuff from his room to flee the place, he is arrested and accused of murder.

Further on, the book no longer interests me. It is a lengthy account of Yakov’s imprisonment, his humiliation, his torture, his interviews by the officials, his solitude. It is a truthful account, no doubt; there is no unnecessary exaggeration of the details, but that is to be expected considering that it is based on a true story. Of course there are lies being spun around him, of course evidence is tampered with, well-meaning investigators are kept away, abominations against the Jews by Orthodox Christians abound, but all this seem so trifle to me. There is no originality in Yakov’s thoughts about religion, or even metaphysics.

I would have much preferred the insinuations of anti-Semitism outside the prison, this atmosphere of bigotry that follows the person of a stigmatized race. Instead, the novel suddenly took on an experimental turn, with the results of the experiment quite predictable to me.

On another note, my book’s cover had a beautiful painting by Boris Bovine Fenkel, called Le Mariage. Googling this artist didn’t produce much images, but it led me to quite some interesting articles about the school of painting this artist belonged to: l’Ecole de Paris, (unfortunately, only in French) a predominantly Jewish grouping of painters in Montparnasse in the period leading to World War 2 (1905 – 1939). And things are these days with online search, one article led to another and I found myself reading about The Night of the Murdered Poets, in Stalinist Russia (The French article on Wikipedia is here). Apparently, not even in “progressivist” Russia did anti-Semitism subside.

Connais-moi toi-même

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Connais-moi toi-même: Guerres, humour et franbaniaiseries by Samy Khayath

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I never thought a Lebanese humorist would write a book, and for sure, I never assumed the book would be that good! The reason is I come from a generation that did not really know the likes of Samy Khayath and am stuck with subpar humorists, people who are so cheap on the stage, I wonder if they ever acquired some form of education or learning.

As it happens these days, the non-traditional book-finding procedure, somebody posted a link to a youtube video of Samy Khayath, and I went through his channel, and found a video of him signing his book in Beirut, two years ago. Luckily, there remained one or two copies in our bookstores and I was lucky to have one on that same afternoon.

Samy Khayath is part of a generation that has probably vanished from Lebanon. Francophile to the last bit, his pre-war representations demonstrated a love and a command of French that was equally appreciated by a large audience of Lebanese theater-goers, as high as around 30,000 spectators during the civil war! These days, one is lucky to stumble upon a play in French in some forgotten something-turned-theater in one of the quarters of Beirut where residents still hopelessly cling to that language.

Samy’s book was a joy to read. Written in a very literary French -some words gave me a hard time with a couple of dictionaries, yet boosted my Scrabble-playing skills- frequently in sentences that seem never to end, therefore, giving the reader the physical sensation of catching his own breath. Probably as a collateral damage, some of these figures of speech when directed towards himself bordered on vanity and self-grandeur, as in when he refers to himself as one invested with some religious mission to make people laugh.

I would understand why someone of his caliber would repeatedly employ such imagery. For one thing, here is a guy who never tired over a career of 40 years to remain faithful to his audience in being present yearly on the stage and making them (intelligently) laugh all throughout the years of war, with no support safe the loyal attendance of his spectators. For another, before the war and even after it, no explicit recognition came from the Lebanese state as a reward for his career, no serious prize of the sort exists in this country, no books or journals or reviews on Lebanese theater. I suppose the only recognition one gets is from the reviews of some newspapers or magazines in the cultural section.

Samy Khayath was famous for his physical energy on the stage, for making pranks on the audience itself whereby the play would halt because of some on-stage quarrel between the actors, or some fake props’ incident, for his special effects and magical tricks which mesmerized the audience at that time, for his parody songs boldly caricaturing Lebanese and world political figures, for his attention to details in designing brochures and advertisements for his plays, and last but not least, for his clever puns, and example of which, I reproduce at the end of this post (unfortunately in French, and I do not dare translate it for fear of massacring it).

I should have imagined that such an acclaim should be everlasting, alas, if things do not come to an end, they radically change. The Lebanese society itself following the hemorrhage of a good portion of the population towards other countries changed, the entertainment scene obeyed other rules, francophone adherence no longer commanded such attraction on the population, and this invariably reflected on the increasingly shorter-run spectacles, and smaller audiences attending Samy’s plays. The decline in the interest showed by the spectators towards his plays is one that is so transparently laid out in the book that I couldn’t but feel sadness towards the book’s main character. Nevertheless, I was much in respect for him, painting himself in such a light in his glorious days yet faithfully able to describe this anti-climax with such clarity.

In the absence of any moral or legal guiding principle, several of his sketches have been plagiarized, or have served as “inspiration” for other comedians or writers, and I could not retain my shock at some of the sketches or puns that I see everyday reproduced quite liberally on Lebanese television, not the least of which being his sketch about our first names that people automatically use to categorize their holder into a religion, religious sect and even a certain locality.

For my part, I was astonished with how much cultural life strived in this country during its darkest hours. That people should drive under shells to attend a 2-hour play is a remarkable will for survival. Similarly, I admire the drive and commitment that the actors and the technical staff displayed in making every written script a reality. I was surprised by our own level of education, which had to be of some respectable level to appreciate the subtle jokes and cultural references Samy always made, in French nonetheless! I also admired the courage and support assumed by Christian orders in offering Samy the theater and the logistics he requested, at a time when, supposedly, the  Christian part of the country suffered under a reputation of isolationism, imperialism and backwards-thinking.

I will be looking over that book again, something I never do for non-fiction books; but the writing, probably because it is autobiographical, has such a literary force that I would recommend it, even to non-Lebanese who delight in experiencing the refined beauty of the French language.

As promised, I faithfully, reproduce the witty pun of the title Samy Khayath chose for his play, “Salam…use”

(note: at the time of the play, a time of great discordance in the country, the Prime Minister of Lebnese was Saeb Salam, Salam meaning peace)

En ce-temps-là, il n’y avait pas de place pour l’analyse lucide et sereine de évènements. Seule l’histoire dira qui avait raison et qui avait tort. En ce temps-là, j’étais toujours habité par mon rôle de témoin de son époque. En ce temps-là, il me tardait de raconter de façon vivante tout ce que mon pays a connu comme rebondissements au cours de cette année. Je me mets de suite à écrire un nouveau spectacle. Inspiré par l’atmosphère politique ambiante, je lui donne pour nom “Salam…use”. D’une part, le président du Conseil, fort de la légitimité populaire et institutionnelle qui l’a consacré, “use” de son autorité pour gérer le pays, d’autre part, il me semble, à moi humoriste, que par sa superbe et son goût accentué du panache, “ça l’amuse”. En fait, j’ai adopté ce titre définitif lorsque je me suis assuré de la situation stable de Saeb Salam. Auparavant, lorsque ce dernier avait entamé la procédure de formation du cabinet et que tout semblait facile pour lui, le titre de mon show était “Salam…beau” avec la permission de Flaubert. Mais lorsqu’il échoua dans cette première tentative, cela devait: “Salam…aigri”. Puis des scandales éclatèrent et je change à nouveau la dénomination en “Salam…aux roses” qui prend sa double signification si on fait la liaison en prononçant ainsi le titre: “Salam morose”. Mais Saeb bey a pu faire taire ses détracteurs et ce fut “Salam…mate”, avec un clin d’oeil au salut oriental “salamâtt” qui peut avoir une connotation péjorative de taquinerie dans le genre “à bon entendeur salut!” Enfin, tout s’est tassé pour le grand manitou de la République et “Salam…use” s’est imposé. Il n’empêche que la hantise d’une chute du cabinet me tracassait. Si une situation aussi grave survenait, j’aurais recours à un accent aigu et le titre sera: “Salam…usé”, un jeu de mot qui conserve toute sa saveur dans les deux sens du terme. Mais tout s’est bien passé et le nom définitif fut adopté. Je l’annonce à mes amis et à la presse en signalant que je me suis tiré d’une situation bien “salambiquée”.