The Woman From Bratislava, Leif Davidsen

Standard

TWfBratislavaI came across Leif Davidsen while traveling to Copenhagen. I hadn’t heard of him before. Though there’s been quite a surge in Scandinavian crime fiction, I was somehow disappointed with them, and wasn’t sure I’d enjoy yet another crime investigation from up north. But the passenger next to me, who happened to be an English teacher in Copenhagen, promised that I would not disappointed.

8 months later, I can confirm she was right.

I don’t know which label to give to this book. The cover’s tagline says “One of Denmark’s top crime writers”. I wouldn’t say this book is a crime novel, not in the sense of police procedural novels, nor is there a detective sniffing around, or CSIs revealing last-minute scientific truths. I wouldn’t also say it’s a spy novel, even though the word Bratislava tricked me into thinking that when I picked it up. Let’s say that it’s a genre of its own.

Set against the backdrop of the NATO bombing on Serbia and Kosovo, the story is told from the perspective of the three main characters: Teddy Pedersen, the history professor who is on tour in the Balkans, Per Toftlund, the PET (Denmark’s Internal Security Intelligence Agency) detective assigned to the case, and Irma, Teddy’s sister the main suspect in the case.

The case is nothing more than a suspicion that PET has about a mole inside of NATO; a mole that was potentially operating as a double agent for the Russians during the communist times and who might have caused the liquidation of Danish spies by the Russians, at the time. A mole who goes by the lovely name of Edelweiss. The reader forms a clear idea of the case in the second part of the book when the perspective of the story shifts to that of Per Toftlund.

To get to that, we first spend 100 pages with Teddy. I loved that character: he is sarcastic, funny, with his marriage falling apart, mostly because of his mistakes, wishing that he could fix it, while at the same time admitting that he is a serial cheater, who couldn’t be bothered to phone in home to check on the family. Still, he’s able to admit that:

We imagine that we live in an age when our hearts cannot be broken, but betrayal and broken promises hurt as much as they ever did.

In his touring of Eastern Europe, Teddy notes the transition between communism and capitalism. The book was published in Denmark in 2001, and so the remarks he makes were pertinent for the time. In Bratislava, he remarks:

Nowhere in the world will you find finer street musicians. And always there is a beggar with no legs, a little old lady swathed in shawls or a cripple covered in running sores. The communists hid them out of the way, Capitalism has driven them out into the open in all their pitiful wretchedness. It is easy, in today’s post-communist world, to feel like a socialist.

In Bratislava, Teddy encounters the woman from Bratislava, who turns out to be his half-sister, who harshly reveals to him that his father did not die in Hamburg when Teddy was 3, that he led a full life in Bratislava with his wife, whom he met during the war when he was fighting on the side of the Nazis, part of the Danish Legion. A bit too much even for our embittered Teddy. What’s worse, his sister Irma and his brother Fritz knew about the resurrected father in Bratislava. His half sister leaves him with an envelope of pictures and documents proving her story to him and upon her departure Teddy is hit by a lumbago that prevents him from continuing the trip further to Budapest. This saves his life. The room he was supposed to book is ransacked at night and the colleague who substituted Teddy is found murdered.

I wished the book was told from Teddy’s perspective. I’m beginning to warm up to first person narratives, but I suppose for our case, we needed the lucidity and the detached look of Per Toftlund.

Per is the opposite of Teddy. A calm individual married in love and expecting a child. Per had messed up a surveillance mission he had and was disciplined by being transferred to Immigration & Customs. His former boss throws him a bone, and gives him a chance to reintegrate PET by assigning him on the Edelweiss case. What was supposed to be a tracking of a mole inside NATO takes on a different form when a Stealth bomber is shot down by the Serbs. A catastrophe since those bombers are not supposed to be detected. With the Russians implicitly taking the side of the Serbs, shooting down the bomber will give their engineers a chance to deconstruct it to obtain the technology they are missing.

Irma, suspected of leaking out the information of the flight path of that Stealth bomber to the Russians or to the Serbs, is arrested as she returns from Stockholm and held in solitary confinement in Denmark. The third perspective opens up on another first-person narrative in a letter she addresses to her half-sister, the woman from Bratislava, in which she details her childhood, her Nazi-collaborating father and the turn of events in her life that led her towards the radical left in the 70s.

The joy I got from reading this book did not come from solving the case, from the twists in tracking down Edelweiss, from uncovering who killed Teddy’s substitute in Budapest. I liked the changing perspectives, the realities of politics and international security that are never stable but that shift with changing parties, changing ideologies and changing interests, to the point where one wonders who is a traitor and who is a hero. Similarly, these changes are cascaded upon the main characters of the novels, and they undergo changes when realities change.

Teddy, for example, cannot view his father as being a servant of his country when he takes up arms and joins the Danish legion to fight alongside the Nazis, encouraged by the then Danish government, which quickly rids itself of the more outspoken Nazi-collaborators once it became clear Nazi Germany was going to lose the war.  At the same time, the Estonians do not view the pro-Nazi Danish Legion as evil because they helped them backing off the Russians on their borders and prevented a massacre. Per Toftlund gradually realizes that he can no longer act fearlessly and almost carelessly in his missions when he knows there is a wife and a child waiting back home, and that working for PET, there were no clearly defined rules of right and wrong as matters are in Immigration and Customs.

I also loved the walkthrough details of the Easter European capitals, Prague, Tirana, Budapest, Bratislava and Warsaw. Ten years after the fall of communism the change is still not visible in the building and the infrastructure but in the advertisements and in the pervading English. Posters that called women forward towards the great socialist revolution now advertised cosmetics “for the better you”, hotels, restaurants and pubs that once had a particular Bratislavian cachet now resemble any other hotel anywhere around the world. It is not unlike how it was for us in Lebanon during the war, especially with the political posters or the figures of resistance that were plastered everywhere one’s gaze landed were replaced almost overnight with corporate logos, Coca-Cola and Johnny Walker and the like (in the case of Lebanon it was more Pepsi and Dewar’s) and gradually French lost its distinguished appeal over people and everyone, with time, shifted to a form of English.

To quote about the above from the book, here is Teddy explaining to Teddy about Albania post-communism:

When all the apparatus of the market-economy spilled into this country in the early nineties the population was totally unprepared for it. It was like putting a virgin in bed with a porn star.

I highly recommend this book: it is funny, it is shocking at times, and it is quite informative for someone, like me, not well knowledgeable about Eastern & Central Europe and their transition into the market-economy. I will be picking up more titles from Leif Davidsen. Perhaps in the others the intrigue will be more prominent the writing less entertaining, but I am sure, as it is in this book, they will balance themselves out to my pleasure.

 

Advertisements

L’Horloger D’Everton, Georges Simenon

Standard

 

421_001

Simenon wrote L’Horloger d’Everton in 1954, in Lakeville, Connecticut. It is one of the 25 works – romans-durs and Maigrets – that will be produced during his 5 years in America. That’s 5 novels per year, on average. Perhaps, because of his abundant productivity, his writing did not change between France, the US or Switzerland. What is noticeable though, in this book, is the abundance of items that are given their american labels: living room, dad, slacks, rye, high school, federal building, etc… italicized whenever utilized.

L’Horloger d’Everton is the story of a father, Dave Galloway, living alone with his son Ben, 16, ever since Ben’s mother, Ruth left them when the boy was 6 months old.
Dave leads a monotonous life among the inhabitants of Everton; he is familiar with most of his neighbors because of his watch-repairing shop. Every Saturday night, he heads off to his friend Musak, and they spend their Saturdays playing trictrac with their rye drinks.

Heading back home on one of those Saturdays, Dave finds that Ben is not there. Brought out of his house by the cries of his neighbor, Mrs. Hawkins, dragging her drunkard husband up the stairs towards their home, Dave is made aware of her concern that it is a little too late for Ben and Lilian to be at the movies. This ludicrous scene, between the cries of the drunk Mr. Hawkins, his wife trying to shut him up, forcing him to stand still, while informing Dave that Ben has been a frequent guest of their house for the past three months, shakes up Dave’s impression that he and Ben were on the same page, that they understood one another, that they were a good team. In this badly-lit hallway, Dave starts to realize that his life with Ben  as he thought he knew it, is no more.

In the early morning light, the missing elements of Ben’s disappearance start falling into place: a visit by the police tells him that his son stole an Oldsmobile after, as it might seem, having murdered its owner; he is riding on the interstate along with a girl, Lilian, most probably.

The events that follow are very American in their appearance, and I got the feeling that Simenon couldn’t have written them as such had he not spent time there, whilst retaining his own rendering of Dave’s grasp of this new reality. A manhunt is set on track after Dave’s interrogation by the police and the press invades Dave’s little privacy. In a matter of hours, America knows about the police chasing the dangerous suspect Ben through the news flashes that interrupt the radio programs transmitting baseball games.

I won’t say more about the plot; it is a quick read but one that I don’t recommend. I haven’t read Simenon in almost two years, having finished Assouline’s biography of him in January 2013, and I thought it was about time to pick up something by him again.

I suppose if one is familiar with Maigret and picks up this book, then yes, I can understand being taken by L’Horloger d’Everton. However, What I saw was a repetition of characters, a repetition of expressions and almost the same setup of other romans-durs. For example, I wonder if Simenon ever wrote a novel in which the protagonist spoke or expressed himself much more than just absorbed what is going on around him, passively grasping the reality of things, acting more than just a mere observer of life. Rare are the books where the protagonist is a woman, or where woman have a positive influence on the plot.

There are variations among the novels, to be sure: cigarettes or pipes, murderers vs innocent, married or single, rich or poor, but nothing deep. These slight variations do not hold my interest much long. The plot structure triggered by a murder that transforms the reality of those affected by it without them having any influence on the course of events is a structure that works in Maigrets but not in the romans-durs.

This is why when I’ll be picking up Simenon again it will be a Maigret. At least in a Maigret, I know I will be jumping in a pre-defined environment, the Quai des Orfevres, Paris, the shady individuals, the extravagantly rich people, the wife of Maigret in the background, the heater of Maigret, his temper, his compassion with the victims, his understanding of the complexities of family life… If I read a dozen of similar Maigrets, I’m not bothered. But stumbling upon the “serious” novels which explicitly and repeatedly borrow from the Maigret is something I no loner enjoy.

To be fair, how much can an author change in 400 novels, novellas and short stories, not forgetting that I didn’t read half of those. Judging from the titles, I suppose there are novels that do not quite resemble those I’ve read so far, for example: La Veuve Coudère, Lettre À Mon Juge, and Pedigree.
Though I don’t recommend it, L’Horloger D’Everton is a book praised by TS Eliot who was also a fan of the Maigret novels, and it fared well when it was published. Perhaps, this is why there are so many covers of this book, a surprise I received when searching for a cover image to add to my post.

I picked the top cover because at least the image reflects a scene that is present twice in the book when Dave crumbles down on his bed first after suspecting that Ben might have completely taken off, and the second time when he is done with the press and is completely beat. The image also resembles his incomprehension when Ruth left him.

The grey cover right below does not reflect the content of the book because we’re only in Dave’s workshop in the first pages of the book, the second one in red plays on the mystery of the Oldsmobile, the Livre de Poche cover is too abstract for our story, and the last cover promises a love story as it seems.

cvt_LHorloger-dEverton_9875

077_L230
9782253142843-Tromanpatr_Horloger dEverton