The Woman From Bratislava, Leif Davidsen

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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.

 

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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”.